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As the world increasingly turns its attention to the action required to limit the damage being done to the environment by human activity, the data centre sector is getting to grips with the role it must play in reducing carbon emissions. Energy consumed by data centres is attracting more attention as a matter of concern, as global computing capacity continues to rapidly increase. Already, data centres use an estimated 200 terawatt hours (TWh) each year, more than the national energy consumption of some countries.
The European Commission has estimated that by 2030 electricity consumption in European data centres will exceed 3% of global energy consumption. In response, industry bodies and individual businesses are committing to initiatives designed to improve the performance of their assets including the areas of energy consumption, carbon impact and water use aligned with their ESG imperatives.
Simon Harris, Head of Critical Infrastructure at Business Critical Solutions (BCS) suggests that one of the fundamental themes emerging from their 2021 Summer Report is the race for space and power that is playing out across the thirty-eight European countries from which we have received insight.
“Nearly three quarters of the respondents in our survey cited power availability as the most important consideration for data centre location selection. A significant risk exists that rapidly growing demand for information services and compute-intensive applications will begin to outpace the efficiency gains that have historically kept data centre energy use in check” says Harris.
Harris believes that there are a number of project success factors that need to be addressed in order to lower emissions in the data centre industry:
1. Clarity of brief
Within existing facilities, it is easy to allow the scope of the project to expand as operational stakeholders have their say and more facts and shortcomings about the facility come to light. The brief points the way in preventing budget and programme pressures being realised by focussing on scope that enhances or protects asset performance and value.
Clients should take the opportunity to consider adaptations required to respond to climate change and extreme weather events including periods of hot weather, high humidity and any changes that have occurred to flood plains in order to future proof where appropriate.
2. Surveys and validation of record information
It is often assumed that record information is accurate and up to date. That assumption should never be made. Surveys and validations should always be commissioned early in the project. Energy monitoring surveys conducted in the early stages of a project should identify easy wins that can be executed quickly and provide a baseline from which to measure delivered benefits for the project as a whole.
3. Budget setting and consideration of the detail of the project
Broad-brush cost estimates based upon historic norms are usually inappropriate and likely to give misleading answers. Consideration needs to be given to the project specifics and prevailing working constraints. Benchmarking of elements or the entirety of the scheme may be useful to give confidence that estimates are in the correct order of magnitude but not as the sole basis for business case approval.
4. Recognition of working constraints
Operational procedures at data centre sites often prevent uninterrupted working and change freezes are not uncommon. Projects tend to have extended execution times compared to new construction. Additionally, as a result of Covid protocols we are seeing restrictions on workforces coming onto functioning sites. Typical constraints include limits on where personnel have been in the two weeks prior (overseas or in other facilities) or only being permitted onto site if vaccinated. These restrictions, whilst often appropriate, make resourcing projects more challenging with inevitable programme effects.
5. Risk management processes
Project planning and execution needs to be aligned to operational risk issues and downstream impacts. Well considered risk registers are required providing clarity about owners and actions. Risk plans require review at appropriate intervals to ensure they are relevant, up to date and in active use.
6. High levels of engagement with operational teams
Ensuring that project work can take place in a way that is congruent with the continuing business as usual operation of the facility is essential. High quality look ahead planning will be needed to integrate construction and operation activities.
7. Back out plans agreed before change overs are executed
Many projects will have one or several key change over activities that require right first-time execution. These will often be programmed to occur over evenings or weekends. To ensure full service availability at key times, plans should exist to determine when and how reverse out plans should be enacted if work does not proceed as planned.
8. Capable teams with relevant expertise and experience
Selection of skilled and experienced design and construction teams are essential to successful project delivery. Appointing project participants should therefore be done on the basis of a thorough pre-qualification process or through pre-existing knowledge of the capability of organisations key individuals. Skills shortages in the sector make this process essential.
9. Financial considerations
Full project financial picture must be considered, inclusive of the tax position. Government tax Incentives in the form of capital allowances are available to support and encourage businesses to undertake capital investment. These incentives are obtained through savings in Corporation Tax. With expenditure on qualifying plant and machinery likely to be substantial, Corporation Tax paying UK based data centre owners should ensure that capital allowance benefits are maximised in order to improve their return on investment.
Obtaining the relief is not an automatic process and the tax rules are complex and often misunderstood. As a result, many businesses miss out on the tax relief available to them. Appointing a specialist capital allowances consultant with complex engineering systems experience will deliver tangible benefits.
10. Potential efficiency gains through investment
Potential remains for substantial efficiency gains, but investments in next-generation computing, storage, and heat removal technologies will be required to avoid potentially steep energy use growth later this decade. Parallel investments in renewable power sourcing will be required to minimize the climate implications of unavoidable data centre energy use.
There is no doubt that the years between now and 2030 are critical in the race to net zero. For the world to get on track, there will need to be an immediate, unprecedented acceleration in deployment of new and existing technologies within renewable energy generation.
We have already seen a trend amongst technology businesses announcing their plans or achievements in moving to green power. These businesses have been using their muscle to hoover up large amounts of green power availability but the simple expedient of going 100% green will not be sufficient. Efficiency improvement opportunities within existing facilities need to be taken whether that is through smarter management of the IT itself or the supporting engineering infrastructure.
According to Harris: “At BCS we have seen significant energy efficiency improvements delivered as part of a general refreshment of assets that are beyond their economic life.”