Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Decarbonising data centres – What’s next?

While data centres feed the world’s demand for 24/7 connectivity and communication, they are in the spotlight as significant consumers of energy.

As the world transitions away from fossil fuels, and becomes more reliant on decentralised smart and renewable energy, data centre developers, owners and operators need to rethink how they design, construct and operate their assets. The decarbonised data centres of the near future will need to run on cleaner forms of energy and incorporate design innovations that enable reduced carbon emissions during construction and operation.

Beginning with a decarbonisation strategy

It is essential to start with a decarbonisation strategy as a guiding light for any data centre development to ensure the lowering of embodied and operational carbon emissions, increase in energy efficiency, management of grid stability, resilience and future adaptability.

Using energy wisely

While power usage effectiveness can determine power efficiency, it does not consider where it comes from. Carbon usage effectiveness targets and reporting enables data centre operators to focus on increasing renewable energy supply while also considering building system aspects such as lighting and cooling.

Data centres in cooler climates have the benefit of accessing outside air to cool the heat from servers. This applies to southern regions of Australia and New Zealand’s south island. Needless to say, demand for data centres is growing significantly in hotter, more humid regions, for instance Asia, where this approach cannot be implemented because for it to work, the temperature needs to fall below 19°C and the humidity below 60 RH (relative humidity) for more than 2,500 hours per year.

In response to this challenge, different technical options can be considered to reduce energy use. These include:

  • Battery energy storage
  • Heat recovery to sell ‘waste’ heat to district heating networks
  • Alternative forms of cooling
  • Hydrogen or biodiesel fuel for back-up generators
  • Data centres generating their own renewable energy
  • Applying machine learning techniques to optimise system setpoints to manage the intermittency of renewable energy by regulating and shifting the usage of energy and maximising demand flexibility

While there are many existing and emerging technology and system options, they’re at different stages of maturity, but the future will see them included in some form and capacity.

Designing for the future

Even though the largest consumption of energy, and greatest greenhouse gas emissions, occurs during the operations of a data centre, its design and materials use during construction should not be understated.

There is an increased focus on reducing embodied carbon of structures by considering a hybrid of construction materials across traditional concrete and steel, and now even timber. There are also plenty of examples of repurposing existing buildings into data centres, such as NEXT DC’s B2 project, that involved the conversion of a former bank building into a data centre.

Modular design is also increasingly being used to fit data centres into tight urban spaces or remote locations where access for construction is more challenging. In space-constrained Singapore, the Global Switch Data Centre was the first large-scale project in the country to use prefabricated modular techniques.

Digital engineering is having a widespread positive effect on enabling speed and flexibility in designs. Rather than having to look through a multitude of printed 2D drawings to understand a design and its features, a multitude of scenarios can be run and decided on digitally.

Looking forward, data centre decarbonisation will continue to depend on many factors, from optimised design through to operations. What we will see is rapidly maturing technologies, design and construction approaches that continue to improve data centre environmental performance to achieve decarbonisation goals.

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