5 Key Metrics for Sustainable Data Centers

July 25, 2022

As cloud, content, and commerce services go global, with computing, data, and networking needed in markets around the world, data centers are growing to meet the demand. In fact, without data centers, most digital and online services could not function at all.

However, for all their contributions to the digital economy – and to our daily lives – data centers are increasingly scrutinized for the impacts they can have on power utilization, water supplies, land, wildlife, and surrounding communities. And in response, data center providers are focused more than ever on embracing, tracking, measuring, and reporting on sustainability.

rainforest imageThis is driven by many factors, from a recognition within the industry that inefficient power, excessive water utilization, and short-term thinking in the construction and operation of these facilities is not a viable business strategy, to municipalities paying close attention to data center plans and large customers who require the sustainability plans of their suppliers and partners to meet criteria set out in the customer’s own sustainability strategy.

Here, we want to look at five key metrics that illustrate how data centers can make a difference in building and operating facilities that bring tremendous value to the businesses and people they serve while also ensuring they are good neighbors to the communities where they reside.

Carbon and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions

Carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses (CH4, PFCs, and HFCs) are significant contributors to climate change. According to the GHG protocol and ISO 14064, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions fall under three categories: Scope 1, 2, and 3.

  • Scope 1 – Direct GHG emissions
  • Scope 2 – Energy indirect GHG emissions
  • Scope 3 – Other indirect GHG emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions from data centers include direct emissions within an operation and energy use and indirect emissions such as waste management or business travel. Using renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency are two of the most critical actions to reduce non-renewable energy demands.

A key in managing emissions is to define and comply with specific standards and metrics that are recognized globally and can be compared between sites and providers. These include:

  • United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDG), providing a comprehensive set of tools and metrics for developing and executing on a global sustainability strategy
  • ISO 14001, providing organizations with a framework on how to protect the environment
  • ISO 50001, identifying practical strategies to improve energy use
  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), promoting sustainable practices in the building industry
  • Green-e, a consumer protection program for renewable energy
  • RE 100 – The global corporate renewable energy initiative bringing together hundreds of large and ambitious businesses committed to 100% renewable electricity

Land Use and Biodiversity

While many data centers are developed by re-purposing existing buildings, new data centers can have measurable impacts on land and habitat and require attention and commitment to being a good neighbor to fit into the environment as organically as possible.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a wide-ranging program that helps businesses by identifying areas that warrant focus and action, defines targets that data center providers can apply to sites that reference impacts on land, water, construction, and living conditions across industries and geographies.

Below, on the topic of Life on Land, the UN SDG defines its mission

“Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”

Businesses including data center providers can use these goals and metrics to establish their own strategies and plans, and to measure and track their progress.

In addition to large-scale standards and metrics, data center providers must work closely with community and regional governments and regulatory bodies to make sure their practices comply with local rules and minimize the impacts of their work on nearby resources and ecosystems.

Water Usage

As data center design progresses and achieves higher levels of efficiency, water usage is receiving more attention than ever before. The consumer call to action for environmental awareness applies to data centers: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Data center providers are exploring and investing in new technologies that significantly reduce, and in some cases eliminate, the amount of water required to cool and operate their facilities. What today might be considered alternative cooling options are gaining traction and moving toward industry adoption to help alleviate important local concerns about weighing the benefits of data center services against the crucial need for clean, plentiful water supplies.

But data centers are already reusing and recycling water to minimize its use in cooling equipment and interior spaces. This can include filtering and cleaning the water to remove any chemicals or other artifacts and recycling the water so less fresh water is introduced into the site.

Power Generation and Efficiency

It is widely recognized that data centers require large amounts of power to drive servers, cooling equipment, networking, and operational devices including physical security and more.

What’s less known is that data center power efficiency has improved dramatically even as demand for computing, cooling, and connectivity have spiked over the past decade. This improvement has been accelerated by the construction of new facilities using more effective tools, the growth of GPU-based servers, and the emergence of hyperscale data centers that deliver more data center services to large service providers, at scale, without a corresponding growth in power consumed.

Perhaps the most commonly referenced metric for tracking power efficiency is known as Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), measuring the power consumed by a data center with an aim to reach a ratio as close to 1.0 as possible.

The lag in PUE improvement across the industry can be partly traced to older facilities that are still operating with equipment that is not as efficient, but which are still factored into industry-wide PUE measurement.

However, power solutions offer exciting possibilities for today’s newer facilities and for tomorrow’s data centers. Renewable energy sources are driving more data centers under development today. Data center providers are taking more care in aligning power solutions with the unique characteristics found in different markets. Thermal options may work in some markets, solar in others, and wind power in others.

Advances in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning can help optimize power generation and usage, particularly in tandem with renewables. Efficiency will also grow as old data centers are taken offline and replaced by newer, optimally located buildings. And improvements in power usage in servers, networking equipment, cooling equipment, and more all offer opportunities to bring PUE ratios down in the coming months and years.

E-Waste

The term E-Waste refers to the disposal of older storage, server, and networking equipment. These devices can deposit heavy metals and other hazardous materials into landfills if they are not disposed of properly.

Hardware can be repaired, donated, or re-purposed to extend its useful life. When hardware is not salvageable, data centers can work with certified e-waste recycling facilities to reduce landfill waste. To help measure and track progress on effectively and sustainably managing e-waste, metrics like the Material Reclamation Ratio, comparing the materials that are recycled, reclaimed, or repurposed to the new materials being acquired. It’s worth noting that in some cases, new equipment can be significantly more powerful and efficient, simultaneously, and have a positive impact on sustainability overall.

Customers People Planet: EdgeConneX

At EdgeConneX, we are committed to an industry-leading sustainability strategy that is effective, productive, ambitious, and transparent. We work to meet or exceed our customers’ expectations for sustainable solutions. We treat our people, our partners, and our neighbors with respect and dignity. And we have embarked on a company-wide campaign to become the leading sustainable data center supplier in the world.

In the coming weeks we will be publishing our 2021 Sustainability Report and adding new blog posts to highlight key details from that document.

For this post, however, we wanted to offer a primer on sustainability across the data center industry with a recognition that progress can only be tracked when the key metrics are identified and applied in ways that allow for clear comparisons, showing both the progress of an individual provider and the comparable progress of players across the industry.

So, be on the lookout for more news and information on sustainability here and on our social media feeds. This is not a short-term effort, but one that will demand focus and attention for the rest of the decade, and beyond.

Read more about EdgeConneX’s commitment to sustainable solutions here.