It is surreal to think how short a time it has been since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. In a relatively short span of time, a whole array of digital technologies previously at the periphery of our lives have taken centre stage, powering the way we live, work and play.

At work, business travel has become somewhat of a distant memory as virtual conferencing apps and online work collaboration tools become second nature to most of us. Organisations have become far more data-driven, and we are seeing an influx of newer technologies like 5G.

Meanwhile, at home, we are increasingly accustomed to purchasing groceries and meals online, relying on data and the internet for our daily conveniences and accessibility to on-demand information.

While all these technologies serve different purposes, they share a common denominator: The data centres (DCs) that support the cloud platforms they run on. Indeed, it is safe to say that DCs have become pillars of our communities and societies, just like roads and drainage systems.

Without doubt, the advanced technologies powering today’s DCs deserve much credit for supporting the global economy. However, there is room for improvement. Most notably, the energy consumption of DCs remains notoriously high.

Research from the International Energy Authority estimates that the sector currently uses around 1% of the world’s electricity. This figure could rise to double digits by 2030, making related emissions a real problem.

Here in Singapore, data centres comprise as much as 7% of the country’s total energy consumption, with the number forecast to grow to 12% by 2030. The challenge is for DCs to balance handling the growing influx of data with the need to be environmentally sustainable.

The case for sustainable, energy-efficient data centres

As the industry continues to grow, operators have a social responsibility to their communities to make their operations sustainable.

But the case for investing in green DCs goes well beyond corporate responsibility. There is a tangible business case to such investment, with operators standing to gain significant cost savings in the medium to long term.

This is especially so in Asia Pacific, with all forecasts pointing towards sustained demand and growth for DCs in the region. Asia Pacific is expected to become the largest DC market worldwide by 2024, according to Cushman & Wakefield. With this demand to stay strong within the decade, now is the time to invest in green solutions and build the foundation to drive long-term profitability.

Recently, the Singapore government reiterated its commitment to bringing best-in-class carbon and energy efficiency technologies into the country, as part of The Singapore Green Plan 2030.

While this is a promising advancement, it takes two hands to clap — companies must meet the government halfway and do their part in helping the nation reach its sustainability goals.

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In fact, recognising that the industry consumes such significant quantities of electricity and water, the government has imposed a “temporary pause” on the building of new data centres, giving local authorities time to recalibrate the sector and consider how to achieve a balance between environmental sustainability and supporting business needs. The moratorium also allows time for the industry to come up with new, more energy-efficient solutions.

This ruling by the authorities provides a clear impetus for the data centre industry to accelerate the adoption of green solutions. Existing data centres, meanwhile, must appoint an energy manager and report energy use and greenhouse gas emissions on an annual basis, also following strict reporting guidelines.

“All-hands-on-deck” approach

Most industry players are aware of the importance of reducing their carbon dioxide (CO2) footprint — this awareness has supported the demand for more energy-efficient facilities and access to green energy.

The road to decarbonisation, in truth, is a complex journey as it requires many stakeholders in the energy ecosystem to commit to making carbon-neutrality a reality and legacy for the next generation. Lack of awareness is not the only challenge in the drive to make our DCs greener.

Environmental awareness

A recent Eco-Business study of 208 organisations in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia found that the lack of environmental awareness (71%), lack of investment (65%) and lack of collaboration from stakeholders (61%) were key challenges to making data centres more sustainable.

The government certainly has a central role as a “playmaker” to effect changes in the energy transition landscape. But to realise this vision, data centre operators must adopt best practices across the entire DC energy value chain.

This includes design and build, project management, technical maintenance, energy efficiency solutions, district cooling and onsite renewables to reduce DC’s energy demand, improved utility production and efficiency, and the production and supply of green energy.

Additionally, with cooling needs representing 35% to 40% of total data centre energy demand, operators need to invest in more efficient cooling solutions. A number of key industry stakeholders are already exploring an alternative way of storing energy, using liquid air.

Provider of innovative energy and smart solutions Engie, for example, is partnering with regional research organisations to explore the development of this technology. State-of-the-art innovations like this are likely to become essential components of the green DC revolution.

At present, the sustainability of a data centre is predominantly measured by its power usage effectiveness (PUE) and water usage effectiveness (WUE). Thinking two steps ahead, industry leaders are advocating green power usage effectiveness (GPUE) to complement existing standards.

GPUE “weighs” the PUE to better gauge the sustainability of DCs, by studying the amount of carbon dioxide to be emitted by their use of sustainable or unsustainable energy sources.

With digital technology increasingly influencing the way we live, work and play, DCs today will increasingly form the foundation of our communities. The DC industry needs to work with sustainability partners in the key sectors of renewable energy, energy solutions and efficiency and research and technology to address the challenges of decarbonisation and sustainability.

It is an all-hands-on-deck approach, requiring the public and private sectors, DC operators and solution providers, to take the actions that are pivotal for combating climate change.

Wandrille Doucerain is the head of BD Data Centres Solutions at Engie South East Asia

Photo: Bloomberg