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Key insights from EPEE & SDIA event - ‘Enhancing the Sustainability of Data Centres - what can the Fit-for-55 Package do?’

After our joint event with the European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE) ‘Enhancing the Sustainability of Data Centres – what can the Fit-for-55 Package do?on 22 February 2022, we have outlined the critical steps that need to be taken in order to realize our Roadmap to Sustainable Digital Infrastructure by 2030. Building a sustainable digital economy can only be achieved by having access to accurate environmental impact information on the digital infrastructure carbon footprint, which is currently a missing element. Transparency is the starting point for change and making heat re-use should be mandatory for the industry.

It all starts with transparency on energy usage

Data centers are part of the supply chain for software. Software is what makes all our digital products and services possible. Determining the environmental impact of software and digital offerings requires information from data centers: The majority of data center facility owners and operators have refused to release accurate environmental impact information, unlike many other industries they mostly report ratios and strongly advocate for this approach, instead of releasing actual numbers.

Let’s take an example: Would it be acceptable for the steel industry to only report a metric called “steel-making efficiency” as a ratio on how efficient they are turning iron into steel? No. We would want to know a) how much iron is used in tonnes, b) how much and what type of energy is used to make the steel, c) how much steel is produced in tonnes, and d) what pollutants and emissions are created during the production of steel - all in absolute numbers.

Today, we have the least amount of data on the environmental impact from the digital industry ― the ‘data’ industry ― ironic, isn’t it?

Transparency will lead to innovation on improving efficiency and reducing environmental impact. It enables software to determine its environmental footprint, which will lead to better transparency towards consumers and enable choice. It will also create healthy competition around environmental impact. And it will bring us closer to a sustainable digital economy powered by sustainable digital infrastructure.

Data centers need to release a public sustainability scorecard, based on widely-accepted lifecycle assessment metrics, creating transparency throughout the supply chain.

Screen Shot 2022-02-22 at 13.05.23 (1)An example sustainability scorecard. The original document is available here.

This information needs to be available to each customer within the data center, so each customer can determine their own footprint ― including actual power consumption.

Transparency is the starting point. Every data center needs to make its environmental impact publicly visible and verifiable, providing its customers with transparent data on the environmental impact, including electricity consumption. And this needs to happen now.

We are betting a large part of our European future on digitalization, we must know the environmental consequences created by digitalization itself.

Any sustainability indicator must be available in conjunction with a mandatory scorecard

An indicator can enable customer choice, however, data centers are part of a complex supply chain therefore it is critical that such an indicator is accompanied by the public information required by other actors within the supply chain (e.g. software companies, IT service providers, hardware manufacturers) to decarbonize their part and quantify the environmental impact they have from utilizing the data center facility.

A sustainability scorecard (illustrated above) gives an overview of the environmental impact, energy usage, as well as efforts to reduce those impacts ― and can be based upon widely accepted lifecycle assessment metrics.

Include as much of Europe’s digital infrastructure as possible

We should make the scope of the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) directive as wide as possible. Starting at 50 kW in installed electrical capacity for data center facilities. Otherwise, we will miss more than 40.000 server rooms (Borderstep, 2013) across Europe that present an opportunity to re-use heat and increase efficiency, as many of them are already within buildings where heat can be re-used easily.

Let’s make the scope wide: The costs of implementing heat re-use and energy efficiency measures always translate into savings for the data center owner; as electrical power is a major input commodity cost of a data center.

The SDIA is already running a large-scale Horizon 2020 project to develop a blueprint to transform even small-scale data centers into sustainable micro-clouds that can strengthen the digital backbone of Europe.

Heat re-use must be made mandatory

Data centers represent a significant heat generation source that is stable, reliable, and continuously available, albeit at mostly low temperatures.

It may not be the responsibility of the data center to find uses for the heat, e.g. by building a district heating network or greenhouses nearby, however, it is the responsibility of data center owners and operators to make it attractive and economical to buy the heat from the data center. and to enable integration as much as possible.

At the SDIA, we believe it starts with determining the costs of delivering and upgrading the heat at different reliability and temperature levels, as well as encompassing different contract durations (guaranteed availability). Each data center should determine the costs of delivering the heat within the required parameters, including investments in additional heat improvement or backup infrastructure. This will lead to a price per kWh of heat that can be used by others to determine a business case for building pipelines, district heating systems, or to relocate their business closer to the data center.

This is about enabling sector coupling in a cooperative and economical way, to ultimately use all the energy that is emitted from data center facilities. Today, this is not the case as data centers, district heating operators, and utilities all speak different languages, have different requirements, and for data centers, heat remains a non-core business.

The SDIA has already developed, in collaboration with a cross-section of industry actors, the parameters and template for such a cost table, an example is provided below.

Screen Shot 2022-02-22 at 13.13.59Original Document. Prices are examples only.

Summary of our key messages:

  • Transparency is the starting point, in conjunction with reporting relevant information in a sustainability scorecard and a sustainability indicator. Both enable customer choice and allow other participants in the supply chain to be able to determine the total environmental impact of the full value chain.
  • Further, the release of heat pricing and heat re-use must be mandatory and it is essential to start by making the costs of heat generation transparent to further enable sector-wide coupling.
  • We should aim to include as much of Europe’s digital infrastructure as possible, transforming legacy server rooms into micro data centers that contribute to the heating of office and residential buildings.

These aspects should be considered as part of the ongoing efforts to renew the EED, you can read our full commentary here.

You can also download the full presentation of Max Schulze from the EPEE & SDIA event -  ‘Enhancing the Sustainability of Data Centres - what can the Fit-for-55 Package do?’

Download the full presentation

Max Schulze
Max Schulze
Founder of the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance. Expert on Software Architecture, Technology & Cloud Infrastructure.

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