Businesses around the world are under intense scrutiny for their sustainability practices. Supply chains are being analysed, energy contracts re-negotiated, business travel reduced, and lengthy sustainability commitments drafted. But, as businesses strive to reduce their carbon emissions, the effect of digital services and processes are often forgotten.

However, the impact of digital technology is very real and pressing. While digital technology is powering the way we work and live, the millions of data centres which store and process the digital data we create and use are purging metric tons of hardware, draining country-sized amounts of electricity, and are generating carbon emissions as big as the global airline industry.

How can businesses address this issue? How can they ensure their technical innovation does not become their environmental downfall? And why is this an issue that needs to be discussed around the boardroom table now?

Understanding the situation

“Not everyone knows this, but data centres are at the heart of the digital infrastructure,” David Watkins, solutions director at VIRTUS Data Centres, says. “YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, Zoom, MS Teams, Salesforce, Ocado and many other things we take for granted both professionally and personally, can only operate using the space and power of data centres.”

While it is true and well documented that data centres are power hungry, it must also be recognised that the industry has made positive strides from the legacy data centres of years past. Additionally, it is still more efficient to centralise IT resources in modern data centres than relying on on-premise storage solutions.

“Businesses should be mindful that not all data centre providers are created equal – and it is crucial for CEOs to choose companies with the most impressive sustainability credentials if they themselves are to commit to a greener future,” Watkins continues.

But where to start? Perhaps the most obvious place is in renewable energy use. Many providers claim to be harnessing energy from renewable sources. “At VIRTUS Data Centres we are now able to say we use 100 percent renewable energy from sources including wind, hydro and solar,” Watkins adds.

Energy sources are a crucial consideration when choosing a colocation partner, but the most committed data centre providers do much more – building environmentally sound practices into every step of construction and maintenance.

When it comes to building facilities, BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) standards look at the green credentials of commercial buildings, verifying their performance and comparing them against sustainability benchmarks. BREEAM measures sustainable value in a series of categories, ranging from energy to ecology. Each of these categories addresses the most influential factors, including low impact design and carbon emissions reduction; design durability and resilience; adaption to climate change; and ecological value and biodiversity protection. As well as the commitment to meeting BREEAM specifications, many providers also employ a modular build methodology to deploy capacity as and when required. This drives up utilisation and maximises efficiency (both from an operational and cost perspective).

Examining plant management, there are now many technologies and methodologies that can be deployed to drive efficiency. Examples of this include highly efficient UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply), where unused capacity can ‘hibernate’ to reduce electrical losses. CRAC (Computer Room Air Conditioner) units are typically equipped with variable speed fans, which will regulate in line with demand to reduce energy consumption. Pumps are equipped with variable speed drives, which again will regulate in line with demand to reduce consumption. And chillers often have “free cooling” functionality, where within certain temperature ranges cooling can be provided at a lower level. Ground and air source heat pumps are also being deployed, along with local energy generation all making use of clean, naturally available resources.

Why the data centre is a boardroom issue

We know that partnering with a sustainable provider is possible, but all too often, this sort of decision is seen as just an IT issue. One that might be necessary but not strategically important.

It is of course understandable that priorities are typically driven by what impacts our daily lives. If an individual feels a concept is too far removed from their responsibility, they will not be compelled to change. This could be said for how digital data is stored. processed and accessed – many people are unaware of the environmental impacts of increasing amounts of data.

However, being environmentally aware is not just the right thing to do  – it will also be considered to be a commercial advantage for CEOs who get it right – from meeting customer expectations, to cost savings, to capitalising on a once in a generation opportunity to achieve industry-wide change.

“As technologies develop, demand is driving down price, and it’s now not just more affordable to be environmentally aware, but potentially fiscally beneficial too,” Watkins says. “For example, in recent years the cost of hydrogen fuel cells has plummeted, to the point where they are an economically viable alternative for standby generation. And more widely, the cost of renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels. Indeed, on average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power costs less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely.”

It is once again in the use of renewable energy where being environmentally conscious is helping to better meet customer demand, too. Periods of electricity price surge or downtime associated with traditional energy sources can challenge providers to maintain service at the level that their users expect – whereas renewables are already demonstrating increased reliability. Furthermore, fixed pricing in renewable energy can help manage budget volatility – again important in meeting customer demand.

“So, perhaps the clearest return on investment for companies who invest in sustainability strategies is in cost savings,” Watkins concludes. “But, more broadly, helping to ensure that the internet, data use and smart technologies are not negatively impacting on the environment is a crucial tenet of fuelling a more sustainable world for the long-term. A connected planet, where remote working and e-commerce are the norm and public services are delivered online, is likely to help reduce pollution significantly – and this is an issue for business leaders all over the world.”

Read more on environmental impact – Reducing the environmental impact of a manufacturing facility