Global warming from carbon emissions, increasing sea levels and images of pollution are increasing public and shareholder pressure on corporations to take an active role in finding solutions and be accountable by setting goals and publicly documenting results.
In the IT industry, reducing electrical power generation from fossil fuels is priority number one, followed closely by water conservation and waste management. For the average person, sustainability practices encompass recycling paper and plastic, conserving water, and embracing electric or hybrid vehicles and other eco-friendly habits. For the data centre industry, which is responsible for three percent of global power consumption, sustainability takes on a more intense and innovative path. Based on the sheer size and scope of its business, data centres, like enterprises, have an obligation to implement and promote more sustainable choices and solutions.
As an epicentre of connectivity, multi-tenant data centres provide a location for organisations to house their equipment and connect with the providers, partners and customers required to run their businesses.
Multi-tenant data centres are one of the largest per capita consumers of electric power. Based on current estimates, data centres in the US alone will have consumed approximately 73,000 megawatts (MW) in 2020. To put this in perspective, the US Department of Energy estimates that large multi-tenant data centres may require more than 100 megawatts of power capacity, which is enough to power 80,000 US households, or a small city.
Worldwide, it’s estimated that data centres account for about two percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – a number that is on par with the airline industry.
Technological advancements are difficult to forecast, but several models predict that data centre energy usage could surpass more than 10 percent of the global electricity supply by 2030.
Because of this, data centres are responding and are starting to become powerful voices for change, playing a central role in lessening the impact on the environment. They are making public commitments to minimise their environmental footprints, invest in renewable energy, and devise long-term plans to improve their sustainable efforts. They are becoming cognizant and strategic in how they run their facilities, from what and how they purchase their energy to how they cool the data centre, and everything in between.
These data centres are following the lead of corporate giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Salesforce, who are also establishing sustainability strategies to support the planet. Microsoft released an aggressive plan to halve its carbon emissions by 2030. To help achieve this goal, the company is incentivising its suppliers and partners to reduce their own carbon footprints in order to continue doing business with it.
Drivers of change
Today, hyperscalers, large enterprises and government organisations are demanding that data centre operators create a sustainable infrastructure to earn their business. In response, data centres are evolving.
The most sustainable data centres are being built on commitments to innovative green and renewable strategies – including green power, water reclamation, zero water cooling systems, recycling and waste management, and more. They do not contain obsolete systems (such as inactive or underused servers), and take advantage of newer, more efficient technologies. Taking cues from the hyperscalers, the most sustainable data centres recognise the need to lead with modular energy-efficient data centre designs from the onset, adopt the latest in building technology, and influence the overall supply chain for the actual sourcing of materials for these innovative new data centres.
Economies of scale
Benefits such as cost reduction, increased efficiency and knowledge that you are a better corporate citizen are obvious. What is not readily apparent is that by moving into a green multi-tenant data centre, sustainability benefits are also passed on to the businesses and consumers who collectively benefit from the data centre’s green IT infrastructure.
The economies of scale are extremely significant. Instead of a business (such as a large online retailer) attempting to deploy its own sustainable IT environment to power its service delivery, it can and should outsource to a data centre operator that has a thoughtful and transparent sustainability strategy. The sustainability benefits are then passed along to all the consumers using its services and there could be hundreds of businesses like this in a single green data centre.
Corporates can have a big, impactful shift in their carbon footprint by simply outsourcing their data centre operations
In addition, when you deal with a true green data centre that is serious about sustainability, the benefits go far beyond the requirement that your power be green. There are environmental and philanthropic benefits that can be linked with your outsourced IT infrastructure.
Corporates who report annually on their carbon emissions consider on-site data centre in their scope two reporting, while outsourcing the data centre allows them to shift this impact to scope three. Furthermore, the offsite data centre is often already procuring 100 percent renewable energy, which brings that carbon impact to zero. This is huge.
Corporates can have a big, impactful shift in their carbon footprint by simply outsourcing their data centre operations. The best green data centre operators are starting to formally document and report their progress in environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) reports made public annually. For conventional enterprises and data centres that do not have measurable sustainability as part of their governance, it is coming.
QTS Realty Trust is one of a few data centre companies holding themselves accountable as global citizens and committing to sustainability best practices that are impactful, achievable and will ultimately set the standard for the data centre industry in the years to come.
The company has committed to minimising its data centre carbon footprint utilising as much renewable fuel, reclaimed water and recycled materials as possible by implementing a methodic sustainability approach featuring energy-efficiency measures and renewable energy procurement, all backed by continuous innovation.
Transparency is key to accountability
QTS is documenting and publicly reporting on sustainability goals, metrics and best practices – one of only a few data centre companies to do so.
To support this, QTS recently published its second ESG initiatives report that documents the industry’s first formal commitment to provide 100 percent renewable energy across all of its data centres by 2025. In 2019, QTS won numerous awards including the coveted GRESB benchmark ranking QTS as the number one sustainable data centre company among all data centres globally for its ESG initiatives. In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency named QTS the winner of its first annual Green Power Leadership Award for QTS’ innovative Green Power Purchasing Model.
Today QTS has seven data centres running on 100 percent renewable energy. Approximately 30 percent of its overall data centre power requirements are sourced from renewable energy sources, representing over 300 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of renewable power. According to the EPA, this makes QTS one of the largest users of green power among all data centre companies and the 12th largest user among the top tech and telecom companies.
Choosing a green data centre
For those operating on-premises legacy data centres looking to move into green data centres, or for organisations already outsourcing to a less than green provider, the following are 10 tips when evaluating green data centre providers.
- Check the providers’ ESG ratings with organisations such as GRESB, the Carbon Disclosure Project, RE100 and Sustainalytics, and look for documented commitments to 100 percent renewable energy.
- Look for innovation in power such as the use of artificial intelligence to forecast power consumption, analyse data output, humidity, temperature, and other important statistics to improve efficiency, drive down costs, and reduce total power consumption.
- Check the EPA ranking to find the data centres leading in green power commitments.
- Look for zero water cooling solutions powered by 100 percent renewable wind and solar power.
- Renewable energy should be impactful and cost-effective. Look for data centres with innovative green power procurement models that allow it to purchase renewable energy on parity or below the price of conventionally produced power.
- Look for innovative, data-driven, service delivery models that tap AI, machine learning and predictive analytics that enable sustainability initiatives.
- Look for data centre operators that work closely with utilities to develop tariffs and legislation that make it easier and more cost effective for everyone to procure renewable energy.
- Look for providers with innovative philanthropic programmes such as the ‘Grow with QTS’ programme that plants more than 20,000 trees in the Sierra Mountains every year on behalf of its customers, or its ‘HumanKind’ programme that promotes clean water solutions in emerging markets.
- Look for providers actively speaking and participating with leading organisations such as the EPA’s Green Power Partnership, REBA, the Data Centre Coalition’s energy committee and the RE100.
- Look for providers touting on-site physical features such as smart temperature and lighting controls, rainwater reclamation, recycling and waste initiatives, and EV charging stations.
Alignment and execution around a core set of sustainability principles creates direct benefit to buyers of colocation services, their customers and the communities in which the data centres are located.
The fact that so many businesses are more environmentally aware means that contemplating what green, sustainable data centres can offer is becoming an increasingly important standard for choosing a data centre provider.