How the data center industry can measure its way to a more sustainable future

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The digitization of nearly every function of our society has led to an explosion of data creation, and the rate of growth is only increasing. Global data creation and reproduction are projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 23% by 2025. This rate of growth has the potential to outpace the growth of data center capacity over the same time frame. The world’s data centers already represent one percent of the world’s electricity use, and although the industry has achieved incredible efficiency improvements over the past decade, it’s unclear if those efficiency gains can continue to offset data center energy demands in the years to come.

While the data center industry is working to keep up with demand, it is also adopting and working to achieve ambitious sustainability goals. To do both, the industry must tackle not just energy efficiency, but all the environmental impacts associated with building and operating data centers. With every company deciding on its own what these impacts are and how to measure them, it is difficult for customers, investors and even the operators themselves to know how they are performing.

For the industry to move forward on sustainability in a meaningful way, it must coalesce around a common idea of what to measure, how to measure it, and how to define success.

Image of IT Technician in a Data Center full of Rack Servers.

Standardizing data center energy efficiency

There is precedent for industry-wide standardization on data center energy and sustainability performance. The first standardized metric for measuring data center energy efficiency was created in 2007. Now a common part of the industry lexicon, the Green Grid developed Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) to measure the proportion of total energy use that went to IT. The benefits of this standard measurement are clear. Since its inception, average annual PUE in large data centers has improved dramatically as operators sought to optimize the efficiency of everything in the data center from cooling to lighting. The PUE metric helped direct the industry to an important aspect of energy efficiency, and to drive greater sustainability. Faced with a broad range of environmental impacts, it’s now time for the industry to go further.

Creating a holistic sustainability approach

The data center industry needs a holistic sustainability framework with standardized metrics to guide the planning of owners and operators. Schneider Electric’s Energy Management Research Center has developed a first-of-its-kind framework leveraging expertise from ESG experts, sustainability consultants, and data center solution architects to take the guesswork out of data center sustainability. This framework is made up of 23 specific metrics, and is described in the white paper “Guide to Environmental Sustainability Metrics for Data Centers.” This standard set of metrics will help companies to focus on the environmental impacts that matter, assess their performance relative to others, and make plans for improvement.

The guide also helps data center operators identify their current standing on their sustainability journey based on the metrics they are already tracking. Once an organization determines whether it is Beginning, Advanced or Leading in its sustainability endeavors, it can choose additional metrics to start tracking as it advances along its journey. These metrics are broken down into five categories. Each of these categories represents a major area of environmental impact for data centers:

  • Energy. Data centers use an immense amount of energy. Improving energy efficiency can reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, air pollution, and even water used in electricity production.
  • Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions. Data centers create GHG emissions from the energy they purchase, activities onsite, and from the embodied carbon of the equipment and materials that go into their construction. Every data center operator must be able to quantify and report on these emissions to find opportunities to reduce them.
  • Water. Traditional data centers require water for cooling – an estimated 25 million liters of water each year for a small 1MW data center. Cooling is just one function for which data centers consume water. New metrics can help operators measure water consumption and identify new technologies that can yield major reductions.
  • Waste. Data center operators need to measure and manage their waste impact across the lifecycle of the data center and implement Circular Economy practices to reduce waste generation throughout their supply chain.
  • Land and Biodiversity. The construction and operation of data centers can impact the land, water, and air. The data center industry must measure these impacts to understand their effect on the surrounding ecosystems and the biodiversity on which we rely.

Tracking progress with globally recognized rating systems

In addition to pressure from customers and investors, the data center industry is responding to new regulations that require improved sustainability performance. California’s Title 24 sets standards for energy efficiency in new and existing buildings. Singapore’s Green Building Masterplan sets a target that 80% of new developments will be Super Low Energy (SLE) by 2030.  In the European Union, the ‘Fit for 55’ includes new rules aimed at decarbonizing the building sector. Companies that break new ground, including data center operators, will need additional metrics to measure how their buildings live up to these environmental standards.

There are several frameworks in addition to the one recently published by Schneider that can provide this visibility, from LEED and BREEAM codes to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. As the industry moves toward standards for these metrics and how to measure them, we will develop a common language by which operators can objectively assess their own progress and compare that progress to the rest of the industry.

Leading the way to a more sustainable future

Countries all over the world are focusing on sustainability, setting ambitious goals, and adopting new environmental regulations and standards. Companies are also leading the way, and customers are demanding that data center operators demonstrate sustainability. In addition to attracting customers, improved sustainability performance often yields cost and other operational benefits for data centers. The data center industry has an opportunity to act swiftly to meet sustainability goals that will benefit the bottom line, our global community, and the health of our planet. Knowing what to measure is the first step.

Read some of my other blogs about the data center industry

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