Whilst the growth of data centres has skyrocketed since the pandemic, they are large consumers of energy requiring non-stop energy to both run 24/7 and continuously cool their systems.
But despite the challenges, can data centres hope to one day become truly ‘green’? What are some of the big changes in sustainable data policies, and improvements in data centre efficiency that could make data centres of the future more sustainable?
In this episode of the Cities of Tomorrow podcast, Matt Rickard speaks to Wandrille Doucerain, Head of Business Development (Data Centres) at ENGIE South East Asia to find out.
WATCH: You can also catch the recording of the episode here: Cities of Tomorrow with Wandrille Doucerain – in the studio
What is a data centre and why is it important?
A data centre is a critical digital infrastructure consisting of multiple servers to store and compute data that you’ll need for the many things in your everyday life from browsing the web on Wi-Fi to streaming on Netflix, storing pictures and videos in the cloud and more. The data has to be treated, so it goes to a data centre close to you. This form of critical infrastructure was introduced around twenty years ago and has transitioned from small computer rooms to a much larger extent in data centre buildings.
Data centres never stop, and they haven’t for the last twenty years. They need power all the time alongside cooling systems to maintain the servers, so it is a very important topic in terms of energy and sustainability.
Why was Singapore’s moratorium on data centres put in place in 2019 and what have been the changes that have subsequently lifted this ban?
Singapore is a constrained market in terms of size and green market potential, and they decided to stop new data centres from opening in 2019 as they consume roughly 7-8% of the country’s total power output and were slowing down progress towards Singapore’s COP21 Paris Agreement sustainability goals. The moratorium was seen as a pause for Singapore to think about the best way to restart and move forward in a sustainable way. It forced organisations to consider more sustainable ways to design and build their data centres.
Do you think data centres can truly be ‘green’?
There are three ways that data centres can be sustainable.
When considering the development of new data centres, the design stage is key. By designing to fit as many servers as possible into the space, the energy efficiency of the data centre’s servers can be optimized as measured by power usage effectiveness (PUE). (PUE is determined by dividing the total amount of power entering a data centre by the power used to run the IT equipment within it.)
Considering what type of power to use is important in running data centres both affordably and sustainably. This is especially true in Singapore, where green power potential is limited, and we’ve seen green energy supply gain a huge amount of traction. In 2021 alone, nearly 2.1 gigawatt of power was sold to data centres here in the form of wind, solar and hydropower.
Integration is about offsetting the energy drain that data centres created by capturing the waste product of that energy, heat, and using it productively to power and support entities in their local vicinity. For example, the heat generated by data centres can be repurposed to power things like industrial processes. Through integration, the energy consumption needs of the areas around data centres can be reduced overall.
When these three areas are fully leveraged, you can truly operate data centres sustainably.
What was the impact of the pandemic on data centres? Has there been a change since the initial lockdowns we experienced?
The pandemic was an accelerator for the data centre industry. Growth has been explosive and so has energy consumption, in some cases it has even tripled the market size. This stems from the increased data consumption created by the shift to more remote working, schooling, and entertainment. From virtual meeting platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom to the explosion of streaming services, households are requiring far more data processing and storage than before. In response, many governments are racing to build strong digital infrastructure to keep pace with this demand. Many policies became very friendly to data centre development in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam which boosted their appeal for the data centre industry.
While data centres have become much larger in size to shoulder the demand, ironically there’s also been an increase in smaller data centres within cities. These smaller data centres can be located in closer proximity to end-users, lowering latency to deliver faster data speeds. Leveraging the proximity advantages of smaller data centres used to be mainly done for banking purposes but it’s become a popular approach for streaming, gaming, and working which all require lower latency.
How are improvements in data centre efficiency being made, is there anything in the pipeline that will have a big impact on this?
In the last ten to fifteen years, data centres have been more efficient and are using around half the energy they were initially, but we are now reaching a point where the technology used will only offer incremental energy efficiency gains. Countries such as Singapore are putting some criteria in place to take the next steps in data centre configuration, from improving cooling systems to securing uninterruptible power supplies.
In terms of improvements, a few things have been identified with the potential to be rolled out in the future, but these are not yet completely up to scale. Firstly, cooling systems account for 60% of the cost in powering data centres so it is a big consideration in terms of operational expenditure. Liquid cooling and immersion cooling are ways to combat this and involve reducing the heat of servers by embedding the cooling solution inside the server, rather than blasting air conditioning on its surface. The impact in terms of efficiency is massive and a few tests have revealed around 70% better efficiency and roughly 80% less space required for the servers.
How far away are we from net-zero data centres in Southeast Asia?
In Southeast Asia, the temperatures and humidity make it difficult for data centres to reach net-zero carbon emission, due to the intense cooling needs, so this could take at least ten to fifteen years. The market is not moving towards fully green data centres but instead exploring other avenues such as Google’s 24/7 commitment where every hour you need to prove that your data centre is green. There are also opportunities such as green ammonia and green hydrogen which we’ll see over the coming decade alongside techniques to reuse water from dams for cooling data centres.
In Southeast Asia, we are aiming to have truly green data centres within the next decade. Making green data centres a reality is something we have to work towards and fortunately, we already have access to the solutions.
Did you enjoy this podcast? Listen to the episode with Karen Ng here.
Interested to learn more about Green Data Centres? Read more about how we can make them a reality here.