Energy efficiency – It’s just the tip of the iceberg
By David Craig, CEO, Iceotope
In the data center industry, sustainability has become a siloed discussion focused primarily on energy efficiency. While there is no doubt energy efficiency is a key and important metric, it doesn’t tell the whole story. For long-term change to occur, the entire sustainability chain – from embodied carbon to IT components to renewable energy sources – needs to be part of the equation.
Sustainability should not be about incrementalism, but rather holistic change. When we are solving problems, it is easy to get caught up in the minutiae of the problem. We can end up trying to engineer our way out of it by thinking we can find the solution at the component level. By doing this we run the risk of doing less with more – more space, more carbon, more cost, and more regulation. It’s time to move away from this engineering mindset in order to truly capitalize on sustainability gains.
Why? Because more and more customers are using sustainability as a criterion for vendor selection and carbon reduction will be a fundamental piece of data to win new business. According to a World Economic Forum report, 66% of survey respondents, and 75% of millennial respondents, said they consider sustainability when making a purchase. This highlights the importance of delivering real, sustainable solutions. Greenwashing, where corporate sustainability or carbon offset programs that are more about checking a box and not implementing real change, will no longer be tolerated. The backlash will be swift and harsh and, as the World Economic Forum report indicates, is likely to come from the younger generations who will not permit unacceptable compromises on this issue, particularly as they move into the workforce and begin making purchasing decisions at a corporate level.
Businesses too are realizing sustainability can be an investment opportunity rather than a cost. ‘ESG Alpha’ is a concept that good sustainability practices and corporate financial performance go hand in hand. It is the idea that by adopting sustainability policies and being transparent about them, it can help a company achieve higher returns compared to the market average. It can also be a precursor to investment. Responsible investment funds are now insisting on strong ESG plans from businesses before they invest. With pressure from customers, employees and investors, it will become more important than ever to ensure we are using our natural resources well and for the right purpose.
There is, however, still a cost to be had. In fact, there are multiple. The embedded cost of carbon considers the entire production process of a built asset. There are monetary costs when it comes to green levies being imposed by local or national governments. Businesses are beginning to get a grasp of the true carbon cost as they dig into their Scope 3 emissions and better understand the carbon lifecycle of their entire footprint from cradle to grave.
Finally, there is the opportunity cost. It takes two years to build a data center today, but if that could be abbreviated into six months, is that better for the industry? Or, consider the cost of failure – if the true cost of downtime is millions of dollars an hour, is that worth not exploring new technologies? And perhaps most importantly, what could your business do if it was running faster, smarter or cheaper?
Luckily for the data center industry, there are new technologies that are having a transformative impact and are no longer just sustainable alternatives to the status quo. Precision liquid cooling is one such technology. Servers today are designed to be air cooled. However, at a time of denser compute and data gravity, traditional air-cooling technologies are reaching their limits. Precision liquid cooling significantly reduces energy and water consumption, by up to 40% and 90% respectively. It also reduces the cost of data center design, build and operations – making a liquid cooled data center simpler, less complex and more efficient than any alternative.
While the benefits of sustainable data center practices are clear, the question remains: are we ready to embrace the necessary changes? It is natural for human beings to be resistant to change, but now is not the time for incremental steps. The climate crisis demands quick action and hard choices. It is not only necessary but essential to approach these problems holistically.
Change can be daunting, and the data center industry is no exception. Historically, data centers have been designed for performance and reliability, rather than sustainability. The industry must overcome its resistance to change to embrace more sustainable approaches to data center operations. The benefits of adopting sustainable practices and investing in new technologies go far beyond reducing carbon emissions and stand to improve data centers’ client attraction and retention strategies. Moving beyond incrementalism is necessary to address the climate crisis, and data center providers who take swift action toward sustainability will be better positioned to compete and thrive in the long run.