By: Adam Compton, Director of Strategy, Schneider Electric
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), data centers consume a staggering 200TWh of electricity, contributing to approximately 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the water demand of these data centers can range from 3 to 5 million gallons daily. These statistics highlight the significant environmental impact of data centers and underscore the urgent need for more sustainable practices in the industry.
More data centers than ever are addressing their Scope 1 and 2 emissions through renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal power. As this occurs, Scope 3 has come into focus as the largest contributor to data centers’ greenhouse gas emissions. However, quantifying and reporting on Scope 3 presents a significant challenge for data center operators. Identifying the amount of embodied carbon within the data center and pinpointing the primary emission contributors is equally significant.
How can data center operators use the right tools and methodology to identify and reduce Scope 3 carbon emissions and forge the path to a more sustainable data center industry?
Start with an in-depth analysis
Quantifying emissions from all sources, including indirect emissions from upstream and downstream activities, is imperative for carbon reduction efforts. Understanding Scope 3 emissions represents the next frontier in key performance indicators (KPIs) for the data center industry. Familiarity with Scope 3 emissions should be on par with Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) to effectively prioritize emissions-reduction efforts in data centers. This deep comprehension can happen by analyzing a data center’s carbon footprint based on Scope, GHG source category, lifecycle phase, and data center subsystem. These emissions are subject to substantial variations influenced by factors such as data center size, location, electricity emission factor, core and shell construction, IT equipment configuration, and equipment lifespan, among others.
Prioritize using cleaner energy
When value chain partners such as colocation centers opt to use more renewable and clean energy sources, they can prove to be instrumental in reducing Scope 3 fuel and energy-related activities for data centers, thus presenting a significant opportunity to shrink a data center’s carbon footprint. However, the reality is that, except for facilities conveniently located near hydroelectric, solar, and wind sources, direct powering of data centers with renewable energy remains relatively uncommon.
Nevertheless, some organizations offer solutions to help data centers enhance their renewable energy mix. It is essential to note that while purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECs) or engaging in power purchase agreements (PPAs) can lower utility emissions, they do not directly reduce actual emissions tied to the data center. Such strategies, including PPAs and offsets like RECs, are associated with what is known as market-based emission factors. Being mindful of these nuances empowers data centers to make more informed decisions regarding their long- term sustainability strategies for the elimination of carbon from their entire IT operations.
Evaluate server lifespans
In a data center’s overall lifetime, IT equipment accounts for the majority of its cumulative embodied carbon, ranging from 58% to 85%. Servers contain numerous electronic components with a high embodied carbon content and need frequent replacement. Extending the server’s lifespan by an additional year results in roughly a 16% reduction in the cumulative embodied carbon of the data center. However, the decision to extend server lifespans is more complex than it may seem.
Data center operators should weigh the trade-offs between server replacements and the potential gains in performance and energy efficiency of newer IT equipment. Keeping existing servers for two more years to avoid the embodied carbon of new servers leads to higher energy-related carbon emissions. Replacing old servers with newer, higher-performance models (50% more productive per watt) leads to reduced server quantity required for the same workload, albeit incurring embodied carbon that year.
Purchase efficient and low-carbon products
When choosing facility infrastructure equipment, minimize the carbon footprint by selecting products with low embodied carbon, high energy efficiency, and strong circular economy attributes like durability and recyclability. In addition to considering factors like price, quality, and features, a product or service’s carbon footprint can be assessed by referring to its Product Environmental Profile (PEP). The PEP highlights recyclability potential as a percentage of product material and provides essential information on compulsory indicators, including mineral resources depletion, soil and water acidification, water eutrophication, ozone layer depletion, and more.
Optimize IT applications
Different availability strategies for IT applications, like varying levels of rack redundancy or geographic redundancy, can lead to significant cost savings and reduced embodied carbon. For example, increasing the rack power density from 6 kW/rack to 8 kW/rack reduces the total carbon footprint by 0.5% and the total Scope 3 footprint by 0.7%, leading to cost savings in capital expenditure. Moreover, higher rack power density results in fewer racks, less data center space, reduced networking cable usage, and smaller core & shell, raised floor, and dropped ceiling requirements. This streamlined design enhances overall efficiency and environmental sustainability.
The right IT optimization tools, a part of data center infrastructure management (DCIM), can also monitor server utilization and power consumption at rack and individual server levels, minimizing energy consumption by avoiding overprovisioning and underutilization. Improving server utilization is achieved through virtualization, load balancing, and autoscaling.
As data centers continue to expand and play an increasingly vital role in our digital world, their environmental impact cannot be ignored. To address these challenges, data center operators must focus on reducing Scope 3 emissions by implementing in-depth analyses to quantify and report emissions accurately, prioritizing cleaner energy sources, extending server lifespans, and choosing efficient and low-carbon products. Additionally, embracing innovative design approaches that optimize energy utilization from IT to the facility level can substantially reduce overall energy consumption and carbon footprint. The path to a more sustainable data center industry lies in the hands of operators who take action, adopt environmentally responsible practices, and prioritize reducing their carbon emissions.
About the Author:
Adam Compton is the Director of Strategy for Schneider Electric, where he leads business strategy for the North American business, focused on IT and data center markets and applications for high available power and cooling solutions. With over 20 years of experience, originally hailing from APC, he is responsible for monitoring and analyzing market intelligence towards the goal of revenue growth for Schneider Electric. As an entrepreneurial leader, Adam attends industry conferences and is a mentor capable of directing large cross-functional teams. He also serves on the Board of Directors for Junior Achievement of Rhode Island and received a Bachelor of Science in English from Tulane University.