Carbon neutral data centre: A reality within reach

By Akhil Agarwal, Head of Power Management & Renewable Energy, STT GDC India & Gautam Jena, AVP and Head of Strategy & New Projects, STT GDC India

We are living in exciting times where digital technologies are shaping our future. Whether social media interaction, content streaming or an expanding digital economy, anything we see today is the outcome of a digital revolution for which data serves as the backbone. We are unarguably in the midst of a data revolution, and the point to note is that data is being generated at an alarming rate and it can’t stop. This revolution has spurred demand for data centres globally, and given their environmental ramifications, it becomes essential to find a balance between the symbiotic relationship of data revolution and sustainability.

The Data centre industry contributes to almost 1% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and at a pace in which its demand is gaining momentum, prioritising sustainability and decarbonisation becomes non-negotiable. Globally, efforts are being concentrated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this
decade in line with the Paris Agreement. The data centre industry, which is the nucleus of digitalisation, must make sustainability central to its growth. To achieve this, a well-thought-out decarbonisation roadmap with a three-pronged approach—increasing the use of renewables, reduction of carbon intensity and increasing the count of green data centres— can pave the way for carbon-neutral data centres. The unity of these three pillars can act as a comprehensive strategy for the data centre industry to inch closer to its decarbonisation targets, transform sustainably and align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) for 2030.

A three-pronged roadmap paving the way for sustainability

The data centre operations are energy-intensive and depend on finite fuel sources. As we tread towards carbon neutrality, it is imperative to transition their reliance to the use of round-the-clock (RTC) renewable energy. Utilising cleaner energy alternatives as primary energy sources is the answer to rapidly depleting fossil fuels and increasing emissions. Galvanizing actions to quickly shift the data centre industry’s dependence on sustainable fuels along with diversification of energy portfolio must be seriously considered to propel data centres as frontrunners in achieving decarbonisation targets. In addition, installation of on-site solar panels (if possible), power purchase agreements from wind-solar hybrid projects, investment in the procurement of carbon credits/renewable energy certificates (RECs), and integration of energy storage systems (battery or pumped storage hydro project) can accelerate this industry’s journey towards carbon neutrality.

Now, bringing carbon intensity in focus, and addressing this aspect in data centre operations is critical in
reducing carbon footprint. This can be achieved by optimising cooling systems, adopting energy-efficient infrastructure and practices and integrating advanced technologies to curtail energy consumption.

Furthermore, embracing practices like server refurbishment, and reducing and recycling e-waste are pivotal in enhancing resource efficiency in the industry. Lastly, there is a dire need for the proliferation of green data centres for achieving carbon neutrality. They encompass energy-efficient practices, utilise renewable energy sources and contribute to enhancing the lifespan of infrastructure, ensuring long-term sustainability.

Taking the next leap with technological innovation
There is no denying that increasing computation, large scale tech integration, and data generation will take energy demand of data centres to unprecedented levels. The need is to find a way to cater to the needs without increasing the environmental impact. Here, harnessing technological innovation can certainly bridge the gap. For instance, considering water cooling systems, leveraging artificial intelligence for their optimisation can enable monitoring of temperature fluctuations, real-time adjustments and enhancement of cooling efficiency of data centres. Similarly, relying on innovation to come up with sustainable energy and cooling technologies and best practices in energy management can support the data centre industry in inching closer to carbon neutrality. Also, futuristic data centre designs, smart utilisation of space, incorporation energy efficient materials can serve as a blueprint to keep the data centre industry on the decarbonisation path.

Building a sustainable digital future: The onus lies on us
The data centre industry which in a way serves as the foundation of the data revolution now must essay twin responsibilities: building a digital future and ensuring this future is sustainable. While the industry has already acknowledged its responsibility by taking concrete and result-oriented action towards achieving carbon neutrality, the onus is also on us to showcase a strong commitment towards decarbonisation in every step, action and decision we take. The time is here for the data centre industry to embrace environmental stewardship and find the right balance between progress and sustainability for a better future.

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