The quest for more sustainable data centers

As advancing digitalization demands new data centers, the interests of the environment require data centers to be more sustainable and energy-efficient. The Nordic countries have a lot to offer to companies that are searching for the optimal location for their data center.

There is an elephant in the room of digitalization, and it’s called energy use.

In an article published by the Guardian in December 2017, Swedish researcher Anders Andrae points out that the computing power demand from internet-connected devices, media use, video streaming, emails, surveillance cameras, driverless cars and advanced industrial solutions like machines, robots and artificial intelligence is increasing rapidly every year. In a peer-reviewed study, Andrae found out that without dramatic increases in efficiency, the ICT industry could use as much as 20% of all electricity by 2025, and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions.

According to Kari Hiekkanen, research fellow in Aalto University’s Department of Computer Science, the energy consumption of the internet devices and solutions is an inconvenient truth in the ICT industry.

“Digitalization is regarded and advertised as a phenomenon that reduces carbon dioxide emissions – which it indeed often does. However, many new digital services tend to be so easy to use that their popularity increases quite rapidly. This also increases the demand for electricity,” Hiekkanen said in an interview made by the Finnish broadcasting company YLE in June 2019.

Sustainable data center – a sum of many parts

Data centers act as hubs for the digital society. Everything that can be is now being digitalized, producing enormous amounts of data which is stored and processed in data centers. That goes double for ICT software and services that have the words virtual or cloud attached to them. The ongoing disruption created by the Corona virus has only accelerated the change – for example, the volume of online retail has now gone through the roof in many countries.

The amount of data that we use and consume is growing rapidly every day. It has become clear that if digitalization, with its seemingly ever-increasing need for electricity, is going to co-exist peacefully with the environment, data centers must be planned, built and run in an ecologically viable way.

Antti Arasto, Research Manager for VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, is an expert in energy issues. Arasto has followed the discussion about more sustainable data centers with great interest. He points out that a sustainable data center is a sum of many parts.

”For example, operational effects and emissions are crucial aspects in the struggle for sustainable data centers. They have a lot to do with energy efficiency. It is no longer reasonable for data center investors and operators to just wait for the perfect energy saving solutions to manifest themselves. If the companies put their minds into it, a lot of good can be achieved with the technologies that already exist,” Arasto says.

One thing that has gotten attention lately is the collection and re-utilization of waste heat that all data centers create. How can companies and municipalities use this waste heat to their benefit? According to Arasto, many technologies that were considered too expensive a few years ago are now not only possible but also affordable. The heat pump technology, for example, has taken big steps forward in recent years.

The choice of building materials also has a significant effect on sustainability.

“Nowadays there’s tons of research regarding the life cycle emissions and waste of buildings. What’s the common thread in this research? Longer life cycle and more multi-purpose options usually mean better sustainability. So if a building becomes obsolete as a data center in, say, 15 years, can it be converted to some other purpose? The answer to this question has a lot to do with intelligent design in the very early stages of data center projects.”

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Nordic countries leading the way

Geography and location also play a big part when ICT companies decide where their new data center is going to be built. In recent years, the Nordic region has attracted significant data center investments.

After Google and Facebook entered the region in 2009 and 2011, the Nordic countries have become a preferred site location for an increasing number of data center investors – and for good reason. In 2018 an analysis commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers found that there is an exceptionally strong match between the most important factors which investors currently consider for data center site selection and the parameters where the Nordic markets are perceived as very attractive.

Those factors can be grouped into four categories. Connectivity factors refer to links with customers and other regions through networks, fast data connections and transportation. Also of high importance are nature given factors such as the cold northern climate that helps manage the significant cooling requirements of data centers. Business factors include advantages like quick time-to-market, access to affordable land, competent workforce, high level of data security and stable political environment. And of course there are also energy factors such as access to renewable energy, reliability of the power supply, low prices, and the abundance of energy.

“When technology companies get serious about optimizing sustainability, they try to produce the electricity for their data centers with as little emissions as possible. In the Nordic countries, there are plenty of renewable energy sources available, including wind power, hydropower, bioenergy and geothermal heat. Companies managing and investing in data centers also tend to take an interest in solar power. The large roof space of the data center complex is a great location for solar panels,” Arasto tells.

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A data center without a carbon footprint?

Many large tech companies have already made commitments to using renewable energy to power their data centers. However, more can be done to reduce energy use and improve the eco-efficiency of data centers.

YIT is one of the companies smoothing the way to a more nature-friendly information society. It is building next generation data centers that are sustainable, and more or less autonomous.

“We have been developing a new concept that combines wind energy and the waste heat created in data centers with food production. The result is a data center with minimal emissions,” says YIT Sweden’s Fredrik Sarvell, who is in charge of business and technological development.

In a nutshell, the new concept has assigned wind power close to the data center. A Power Purchase Agreement with exclusive new green wind power can then be added to the data center. Wind turbines and preferably also solar panels produce energy for the data center, and waste heat created in the data center is in turn sold and transferred to a nearby greenhouse where it helps local farmers grow food products. It can also be sold and transferred to an existing district heating system where the need for fossil fuels can be reduced. The process as a whole aims for net zero carbon footprint.

“With this concept we will not only reach our targets for carbon emissions, we will also create an energy efficient Next Generation Data Center. YIT already has a lot of experience in the construction of data centers in the Nordics. Together with our partners we can now provide companies and communities with an even more comprehensive and sustainable solution, not just for the construction but also for planning and running data centers,” Sarvell points out.

“We want to supply a one-stop-shop for Next Generation Data Centers as a service.”

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