Although Singapore is still in the midst of making its Smart Nation vision a reality, we have gotten a glimpse of what it will look like, during the pandemic.

We are seeing technology being utilised in many ways to prevent or slow the spread of Covid-19, such as for contact tracing, mass temperature screening at malls, virtual doctor visits, and contactless payments.

As the government and businesses adopt more technologies to enable a Smart Nation that provides citizens with greater convenience and a higher quality of life, they need to do so with sustainability in mind. After all, a connected, intelligent city that pollutes the earth is not the desired end goal.

One way of enabling a smart sustainable nation is by greening data centres, which make up the backbone of a Smart Nation. “The lynchpin which ties all the technologies [powering a Smart Nation such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI)] together is a network of data centres that can help provide both connectivity and a place to store valuable data for analysis,” Lee Siew Keong, head of sales, cloud & service providers & finance segment, Schneider Electric, tells The Edge Singapore.

However, data centres are usually energy guzzlers.

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Almost 7% of the total energy used in Singapore today is from data centres. Analysts estimate that by 2030, data centres will consume as much as 12% of Singapore’s total energy demand, highlighting the need to alleviate the industry’s contribution to the country’s overall carbon footprint.
Lee Siew Keong of Schneider Electric

The good news is that the green agenda is becoming a priority for most data centre providers, alongside ensuring reliability and availability of their facilities. For instance, many of ST Telemedia Global Data Centres’ (STT GDC) and Equinix’s data centres in Singapore have achieved industry-leading sustainability credentials. Attaining the Green Mark status by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) and Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) in Singapore, and the global Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification signifies that those facilities are environmentally friendly.

“[Data centre providers are increasingly perceiving] sustainability and carbon neutrality as best-in-class practices to create differentiation for securing business and attracting good talent. Going green does not have to conflict with making money. For example, higher energy efficiencies translate to lower operating costs and cumulative savings over the year," states Hitesh Prajapati, country manager of Vertiv Singapore.

The economics are becoming increasingly attractive when green initiatives and clean energy adoption are also incentivised and endorsed by various government initiatives.
Hitesh Prajapati of Vertiv Singapore

Making data centres energy-efficient

Despite the greater need for green data centres, decarbonising data centres is no walk in the park due to land scarcity and limited renewable energy options in the city-state. “In land-scarce Singapore, we are not able to access [different types of renewable energy like] hydro or wind, so solar is the main source of renewable energy here. Our hot climate also presents the challenge of needing more capacity for cooling measures in the data centre,” explains Yee May Leong, managing director of Equinix South Asia.

Data centre providers can overcome those challenges by committing to higher efficiency standards, which is normally measured as power usage effectiveness (PUE). A typical 20MW data centre in Singapore consumes an equivalent amount of electricity daily, which can power as many as 60,000 households.

Given the limited renewal energy options, Vertiv’s Prajapati advises data centre providers to first use solar installations to power a small portion of their facility’s capacity while neutralising their overall carbon footprint with renewable energy credits. Over time, they can consider leveraging other low-carbon alternatives — which are still in development — such as low-carbon hydrogen and carbon capture, utilisation and storage to further power their data centres.

Take the case of STT GDC, for example. “We had to be creative and modify our building design to deploy our own rooftop solar photovoltaic system to harness renewable energy in Singapore. We are also committing to purchasing renewable energy certificates (REC) and entering into Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) to form part of our energy mix. Where required, we are also able to leverage international carbon offsets, and we are an active participant in championing more robust international carbon exchange programmes,” shares Dan Pointon, group CTO of STT GDC.

Additionally, data centre providers should consider using liquid cooling — instead of traditional air-based cooling — to reduce the heat generated by their facilities. According to Schneider Electric’s Lee, liquid cooling can reduce power consumption by as much as 30% when used at heat-intensive spots in the data centre since liquid conducts heat better than air.

But adopting liquid cooling solutions might not be feasible for data centre operators working with an existing infrastructure built around air cooling. For those operators, Lee recommends referencing ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) TC 9.9 guidelines for mission-critical facilities, data centres, technology spaces and electronic equipment when developing plans to design and implement processes to control temperature and air volume in high-intensity data centres. Doing so can help them reduce energy consumption while getting the same IT capacity outputs.

Making green data centres the standard

Making sustainable data centres a norm requires concerted public and private sector efforts. Regulations and industry standards can keep data centre operators in check while driving changes across the industry. This is why Singapore introduced a carbon tax of S$5 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions from 2019 to 2023. Complementing that is the Singapore Green Plan 2030, which provides a clear roadmap to help the republic achieve sustainability goals. “It has motivated all players in the private and public sector to work in tandem [to build a culture and habits] of reducing overall energy consumption and increasing the usage of renewable energy,” says Equinix’s Leong.

Green financing is also helpful in ensuring that data centres are sustainable.

We have seen increasing green financing focus in the private sector, with banks and the debt capital market catalysing sustainable and green finance in the region and registering strong take-up of such offerings recently.
Dan Pointon of STT GDC

Case in point: The Business Times reported in May that HSBC Singapore and United Overseas Bank (UOB) have piloted four green trade finance transactions to support businesses in greening their supply chains.

As for data centre operators, they should take a holistic approach to designing, building and operating sustainable facilities to reduce the consumption of all resources. They can do so by integrating emerging technologies, such as AI and IoT, into their operations to gain real-time insights on the health and availability of the critical assets that impact their operations.


See also: Schneider Electric launches new version of industrial safety and cybersecurity management software


Those insights can also be used to build digital twins, which are virtual representations of the data centre that include the dynamics of how the digitised elements in the facility work and evolve over time. “The virtual replicas can simulate a data centre’s physical behaviour under any operating scenario and provide visibility to reduce operational risk, increase efficiency, optimise energy use and reduce its overall carbon footprint,” Leong explains.

Data centre providers should also keep themselves accountable towards science-based targets so that sustainability progress is measured as judiciously as possible — not just towards the operationalisation of the data centre, but also throughout the supply chain for carbon footprint.
Yee May Leong of Equinix South Asia

One way of helping customers green their supply chains is by enabling them to control and manage their energy consumption.

Besides that, continuous R&D is crucial in enabling Singapore to achieve its long-term net-zero emissions aspirations. With this in mind, the National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF) and Facebook are funding a $23 million research programme to develop innovative and sustainable cooling solutions for data centres located in tropical locations.

The fund will be used to set up a flexible and full-scale live data facility in the National University of Singapore (NUS) to promote the co-creation and demonstration of such advanced cooling technologies. The testbed facility will enable the identification of potential operational risks of the solutions being tested so that de-risking measures that are well-suited for the tropical climate can be designed.

The research will be led by NUS and Nanyang Technological University, and supported by IMDA. Five other industry partners involved are Ascenix, CoolestDC, Keppel Data Centres, New Media Express, and Red Dot Analytics.

Since data centres are the backbone of a Smart Nation, they are expected to provide an efficient and resilient digital infrastructure that supports new applications and services. However, they “need to balance [that demand] with sustainability as economic growth should never be at the expense of people or the planet,” says Pointon.

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