We must be creative to combat the climate impact of our data centres

On 6th December, our global sustainability director, Adam Mactavish, will host a panel discussion at COP28 on how to reduce the climate impact of our data centres. Ahead of the debate, he shares his thoughts.

Data centres and data transmission already consume more than 2% of global electricity and are responsible for 1% of global carbon emissions. This figure is set to double by 2030, putting the sector on a par with high profile contributors, such as aviation, in terms of its climate impact.

But data centres don’t just have a voracious energy appetite; they transform almost all of this into heat. This surplus energy is around 130 TWh per year, enough to heat around 9 million homes. Yet typically, this heat is just released into the atmosphere. Not only is this wasteful, but it can create or exacerbate heat island effects – or hot spots – in urban areas.

There is a huge opportunity to harness this heat for use by local communities, helping them transition to low carbon heating sources. Indeed, because data centres are built to be incredibly resilient, this model is also a great way to provide heat to critical infrastructure.

We’re already seeing the potential for this approach at the Old Oak Common and Park Royal development in London, England. Here, the plan is to capture excess heat produced by four data centres and use it to help warm two hospitals and around 9,000 homes.

Why aren’t we seeing more data centre providers invest in heat recovery measures?

As with doing anything new or differently, it can be difficult to know where to start. Heat recovery approaches need a lot of planning and upfront investment. Data centre providers must engage with utilities firms and work out logistics and expected results. They also need to establish exactly how much the project will cost and what an appropriate funding model looks like – potentially a mix of public and private investment.

This is where it can be hugely valuable to bring in specialists with cross-sector expertise, able to produce accurate cost estimations and develop a watertight business case. This is imperative to secure investment, but also sets the project off on the right foot, with everyone aligned around realistic expectations.

The other question data centre providers might ask is why they should undertake these kinds of projects?

At present, the data centre community is very focused on measuring power use effectiveness – the amount of power that goes into a data centre, relative to the amount of power used by its IT equipment. As long as the centre is effective by this metric, it is not considered wasteful. The problem is that, by focusing on this metric, providers are forgetting that most power used is being converted into heat. And this could be used far more beneficially.

How can we encourage change?

As is often the case, action is needed from across the industry; policy makers, regulators, built environment professionals and customers. All must encourage data centre providers to think about their projects in context and consider opportunities to maximise the beneficial outcomes of their activities.

Regulation could support by:

  • Mandating reporting on broader metrics, including energy recovery factor, embodied carbon factor, or renewable energy factor.
  • Rethinking the role of data centres within urban energy and heat strategies. Incorporating them positively within strategic plans to encourage these facilities in locations where they can provide a wider benefit, for example urban centres.

My advice to data centre providers is to broaden their view of sustainability for these critical facilities. In particular, they need to consider how creative solutions can transform these projects from an energy supply headache to an invaluable source of reliable low carbon heat. Engaging with this agenda will become increasingly important as the carbon impact of data centres continues to grow. Customers of all types, but particularly those required to make corporate carbon disclosures, will focus more directly on the carbon impact of their cloud services when choosing providers.

Developing new workable and financially viable approaches will not be easy. But with support from the right commercial, technical, and sector experts, it is possible. I look forward to joining a panel of such experts at COP28, and exploring the challenges and opportunities for the data centre industry further.

The World’s Nervous System panel discussion will take place at 11am GST in the Dar Pavilion - Green Zone, Energy Transition Hub.

Adam will be joined by Richard Palmer, director, global sustainability at Introba, Dan Epstein, director of sustainability at Useful Simple Trust and the Old Oak Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC) and Mark Wartenberg, sustainability director, Currie & Brown, Portland.

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