Sustainability Metrics Offer a Level Playing Field for Data Centers

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I am one of those people who live and breathe innovation, and, in my spare time, I sometimes (okay, very often) watch American football, so this is my favorite time of year. During a recent game, I listened to the announcer talk of a level playing field and it got me thinking about data center sustainability. In football, the scoring tells the winning team from the losing team – six points for a touchdown and three points for a field goal, for example. Teams cannot garner an unfair advantage by declaring they want ten points for a touchdown.

Each team knows the rules before the game starts and this level playing field is accomplished through standardized scoring that is a form or metric. Metrics are exactly what is needed when it comes to reporting on sustainability in data centers.

The data center industry lacks a level playing field right now because comprehensive metrics are nonexistent. Sure, usable metrics are out there but not every company uses the same ones and, if they do, they may not use them in the same way. It’s quite common to see companies present metrics that are favorable. “We have reduced greenhouse gas emission 20% over the last three years” could be a claim. This may be great or horrible based on the starting point or the actual greenhouse gas emissions because they still may be emitting an enormous amount of greenhouse gasses.

Another challenge could be that selective reporting results in gaps. Many data center companies today choose to leave out water usage, for example. Why the gap? Mainly because a set of appropriate, standardized metrics that all data center companies use doesn’t exist. There are currently no organizations or standards bodies recommending comprehensive sustainability reporting including categories and the corresponding metrics that would be associated with those categories.

Touchdown or fumble?

Opposing teams may have differing opinions. One team would say comprehensive reporting is needed because digital transformation is accelerating at such a fast pace that data centers need to grow at an exponential rate, potentially posing a serious environmental risk from energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, waste of obsolete equipment in landfills, and let’s not forget water use. The other team might say data center operators have been engaged in sustainability efforts for years and are the most advanced industry in reducing fossil fuel based energy consumption, minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and water usage, and highest use of circular materials.

But, as I have stated, without a level playing field it’s impossible for companies to report in a universally understandable way and therefore impossible to compare and keep score between companies. Everyone loves a winner but without a set of appropriate, standardized metrics that all data center companies use, how are we supposed to know if these claims are touchdowns or fumbles?

Standardized reporting benefits companies and investors

A comprehensive sustainability report including categories and the corresponding metrics that would be associated with those categories would benefit the company itself – it could see how it is performing in relation to its peers. Standardized metrics and a standardized reporting format would also benefit customers of data center operators as they would be able to compare service providers on, as they say in football, a level playing field. And it would benefit investors who would be able to perform appropriate analysis on sustainability criteria similar to how they evaluate companies using standardized financial criteria. I like to use the example of a financial balance sheet or income statement: every business reports using the same format for categories and line items.

Data Center Sustainability metrics

Introducing a Guide to Environmental Sustainability Metrics for Data Centers

At Schneider Electric, we are happy to introduce our latest White Paper – WP #67 Guide to Environmental Sustainability Metrics for Data Centers, which I believe will lead the charge for more sustainable data centers. Data center service providers and companies that operate data centers can benefit by using this guide on their data center sustainability journey.  We have worked across the data center industry and associations and have come up with 5 categories and 23 suggested metrics.

Companies are at different levels of sustainability tracking, so we also offer the three level system of Beginning, Advanced, and Leading. Beginning companies will report on Energy Use, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Water Utilization. The 11 metrics are a mix of measured values like GHG emissions in mtCO2e and ratios like Carbon usage effectiveness (CUE) in mtCO2e/kWh. Advanced metrics bring in the Waste category and the Leading metrics include a category for Land and Biodiversity.

We go into great detail on all of the categories and metrics in WP #67 Guide to Environmental Sustainability Metrics for Data Centers. If you are interested in innovation, sustainability, and data centers, I encourage you to read it, when you’re not watching football that is.

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