Strategies to work toward data center decarbonization

Global temperatures are rising, and organizations can do their part by decarbonizing their data centers. Examine ways to cut back on data center carbon emissions.

Given the state of the world's climate crisis, it's necessary for data centers to decarbonize as much as possible. It's best to get ahead now before global or local policies require organizations to roll out decarbonization measures.

Data centers everywhere need to keep up with energy efficiency best practices to strive toward data center decarbonization and protect the climate at large. Organizations must develop initiatives to move new data centers to suitable climates, invest in renewable energy and install energy-efficient hardware.

Why decarbonization matters for data centers

Data centers and data transmission networks each account for about 1% to 1.5% of global electricity use, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). This energy use -- and the emissions it produces -- has direct and indirect effects on the climate.

The IEA has developed a roadmap for the global energy sector called the Net Zero by 2050 Scenario. The goal is to achieve global energy-related carbon neutrality by 2050, which will give the world a chance to limit the rise in the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Why 1.5 degrees? There is significant risk and many reasons for concern for global warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius based on observed environmental impacts and historical scientific evidence the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change compiled. Such risks include the following:

  • More intense and more frequent climate and weather extremes.
  • Higher probability of extreme drought, precipitation deficits and risks associated with water availability.
  • Expansion of areas with significant increases in runoff, as well as those that flood hazards affect.
  • Higher probability of sea ice-free Arctic Ocean during the summer.
  • Increased ocean acidification, threatening an abundance of marine taxonomic groups.
  • Higher risks of local species losses and extinction.

These are just a few examples, and the IEA noted that, while global commitments and actions are growing, we are still falling short of what the world needs to limit this rise in temperature.

infographic of IT data centers focused on sustainability

Data center emissions have only grown modestly since 2010, despite growing demand for digital services, largely thanks to more energy-efficient products, practices and renewable energy purchases. However, these emissions must drop 50% by 2030 to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Incentives to adopt greener data center policies

Protecting the climate is not the only reason to commit to decarbonization. There are a few ways adopting greener policies in the data center may benefit an organization.

Positive PR

Data center operators are often asked, "What are you doing to offset your carbon emissions?" Customers are prioritizing lower carbon footprints in their own businesses, and they want to know their data center partners are doing their part to work toward decarbonization. And with customer demand comes investor interest. Have a clear plan for environmental sustainability, and communicate it broadly to attract the interest of investors and customers who care about carbon accounting.

Improve energy efficiency to save on energy costs

For those focused on the bottom line, there is an initial price barrier to invest in renewable energy sources. It is not easy to replace infrastructure. However, there are regular advances in technology, from hardware and software to power and cooling equipment. By investing in new energy-efficient equipment, energy costs will go down over time. The government may also subsidize your investment in renewable energy, bringing costs down even further.

Stay one step ahead of industry regulations

The global pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050 laid out by the IEA is ambitious. While current policies are often lacking and few and far between, they will only become stricter, more widely rolled out and more ambitious as climate concern grows. You can get ready and stay one step ahead by investigating what decarbonization looks like for your data center and adopting greener policies today.

6 ways to start data center decarbonization

Decarbonization needs to be a multifaceted, concentrated effort. Here are six practical ways to start data center decarbonization and initiatives to consider:

  1. Partner with renewable energy providers. The first step toward decarbonization is transitioning to renewable energy sources. Wind and solar power are the two most commonly available alternatives, but you may have the option to transition to geothermal energy or hydroelectricity to power your data center based on your location. Regardless, make efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
  2. Upgrade the building. Many data center operators focus on energy efficiency inside the data center, but the construction of data center buildings can be a large source of greenhouse gases. From cement, steel and raw material harvesting to the use of cranes and dump trucks to construct a data center, just standing up the building can have an impact on your carbon footprint. If you're building a new data center, aim to do so with materials that have less-embodied carbon, like limestone instead of concrete. Renovate existing structures with locally sourced materials to drastically reduce carbon emissions.
  3. Use natural cooling. Servers generate an enormous amount of heat, and as such, they require extensive cooling to maintain temperatures and avoid overheating. Finding the right balance of cooling and heating is complicated -- and the amount of power it takes is an added complication. Some data centers experiment with natural or liquid cooling to lower temperatures, such as funneling in outside air or seawater to keep equipment cool. Location matters here and is often why data centers are built in colder climates.
  4. Reduce reliance on HVAC systems. HVAC systems are a major source of energy consumption in the data center. Some HVAC systems might be outdated or managed poorly due to inaccurate monitoring tools. Today, modern control systems can use AI models to better predict and manage HVAC usage, which is a great way to reduce energy consumption.
  5. Assess alternative options for backup power. Many data centers rely on diesel generators and fuel for backup generators to avoid downtime from potential power outages, but battery energy storage is shaping up to be a superior alternative -- one that isn't a fossil fuel.
  6. Review assets and their energy efficiency. Modern data center infrastructure management software can give data center admins comprehensive transparency into how much energy each piece of hardware -- from network equipment to servers, cooling systems and beyond -- is using. Use these analytics and insights to reallocate resources and reconfigure assets for better efficiency on a daily basis. This can go a long way to minimize operational carbon impact.

A complete data center transformation requires several of these steps in tandem to build a path toward more sustainable infrastructure.

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