European data centres to be climate neutral by 2030

European data centres to be climate neutral by 2030
11 Mrz 2021

At the end of January 2021, important cloud providers, data centre operators and IT industry associations agreed a European “Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact”. The ambitious target: that, by 2030, all European data centres should operate sustainably – that is to say, to not increase the quantity of climate-damaging gases in the atmosphere. In doing so, they are complying with a demand made by the EU. The refurbishment of IT hardware plays an important role in the implementation of the pact.

Videos, Cloud services, sensor data from industrial equipment and other IoT devices – or information from countless business applications – the quantity of available data is growing almost exponentially as a consequence of digitalisation. This means data centres are critically important because they process gigantic amounts of data. And demand will continue to increase in the future. But this also means that electricity consumption will continue to increase.

This would go against the European Green Deal: the action plan aiming for a climate neutral Europe by 2050. In a first step, the greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced by 50-55 per cent by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels). The data centres should contribute to this. Shortly after the passing of the EU Green Deal, the commission published the paper “Shaping Europe’s Digital Future” which included the requirement: “[Data centres] […] can and should become climate neutral by 2030”. The signatories intend to fulfil this requirement with the “Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact”. This involves a self-regulatory approach.

The signatories include some of the largest companies in the data centre market, with illustrious names such as Amazon Web Services, Atos, Equinix, Google, Microsoft, NTT and OVHcloud. They also include the industrial associations of data centre operators from many European countries. All of them are committed to the European Green Deal and the use of technology and digitalisation to achieve the objective of a climate neutral Europe by 2050. The initiative aims to make data centres climate neutral by 2030 with the following measures:

Improving energy efficiency

Data centres and server rooms in Europe should fulfil a high standard of energy efficiency. Specifically, as soon as data centres have a power rating of more than 50 kW, they must achieve an annual PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) target of 1.3 (in cold regions) or 1.4 (in warm regions). New data centres must achieve this by 2025; existing data centres have until 2030. The closer the PUE value is to 1.0, the more energy-efficient the data centre. In addition, the industry associations want to come up with a new and stricter efficiency metric for data centres.

The PUE value measures how much of the energy supplied is actually converted into computing power. PUE is the ratio of all the energy used in the data centre (Total Facility Power Consumption) to the energy consumption of the IT equipment (IT Equipment Power Consumption). IT Equipment Power is the power consumption of all IT equipment in the data centre, i.e. servers and other computers, memory and network systems, switches, monitors and other peripheral and telecommunications equipment. In addition to the power consumption for the IT equipment, Total Facility Power also includes the electricity costs for the infrastructure supporting the IT operation. These are systems such as UPS, switchgear, batteries, cooling systems, pumps, lighting etc.

Sustainable energy sources

By 2025, data centres should meet 75 per cent of their electricity requirement with sustainably generated or renewable energy, rising to 100 per cent by 2030.

Reducing water consumption

By 2022, data centre operators must define an annual individual target for water usage effectiveness (WUE) or an alternative metric for saving water. The precise target for the water metric depends on the specification of the relevant data centre. New data centres should reach their target by 2025; existing data centres by 2030 at the latest.

More repairs and recycling

Signatories of the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact want to check their servers, electrical equipment and components to see to what extent these can be reused, repaired or recycled. The aim is to increase the amount of repaired or reused servers and to define a utilisation quota by 2025.

Refurbishing IT hardware does indeed provide a sustainable and resource-conserving alternative. Some background: from an ecological perspective, it is better to use hardware for as long as possible. Green IT Solution GmbH specialises in refurbished hardware and in this way makes an important contribution to protecting the environment. The company primarily buys network components such as servers, routers and switches and refurbishes them. These devices have low wear and generally come from customers with a dust-free and uncontaminated operating environment. This means the effort required for refurbishment is lower than for other devices. Furthermore, servers, routers and switches have very stable prices and retain a high residual value, even after five years.

Making better use of waste heat

An excellent way to save energy is to use the waste heat from data centres. So the data centre operators want to check the options for connecting to local and district heating networks, and feed the waste heat into nearby systems in a way which is both environmentally friendly and cost-effective.

The problem: passing on waste heat is generally not profitable for data centre operators, as heat is primarily needed in winter. And in winter, the cold temperatures outside provide data centres with very efficient cooling for free. In addition, there are currently too few networks in Germany able to take up the waste heat. Legal and financial questions are also still to be answered.

Certificates and other approaches

In future, representatives of the data centre industry associations and companies which have signed the initiative will meet the European Commission twice a year to verify the status of this initiative. The signatories will certify compliance with the initiative by July 1, 2023 at the latest. The first measuring period will be the year 2022. Recertification is required four years after the first certificate is awarded – a relatively long period.

Summary: the European initiative for climate neutral data centres is very welcome. We can only hope this pact does not just pay lip service to carbon neutrality, but that the data centre industry actually implements its own regulations. We will see.

Stefan Winklhofer