Industry insights

Reducing IT’s carbon footprint: Good for business as well as the environment

Drew Robb
April 21, 2022 by
Drew Robb

IT in general — and data centers in particular — are energy hogs. A Greenpeace report on North Virginia's Data Center Alley found that data centers are "one of the largest sources of new electricity demand globally."

A significant percentage of the world’s internet traffic passes through facilities in Loudoun County, Virginia, the heart of Data Center Alley. The growth is continuing in 2022. "At least seven new players are planning to enter the Northern Virginia data center market in the next several years," Data Center Frontier reported.

Energy consumption in this small area is growing at 10% per year. Greenpeace estimated the potential electricity demand of both existing data centers and those under development in Virginia to be approaching 4.5 gigawatts or about 39.5 terawatt-hours of annual energy usage. This is roughly the same power output as nine large coal power plants. 

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“Researchers estimate that data centers consume 1.8% of all electricity in the United States,” said Brad Johns, principal at Brad Johns Consulting. “Reducing carbon emissions is a significant global challenge, and many companies have decided they must incorporate carbon reductions into their strategies and have announced green initiatives.”  

Companies such as Dell, Amazon, Verizon and many others have all gotten behind the goal of reducing the emissions resulting from their operations and lowering their carbon footprints. Such moves aren’t only about environmental responsibility. It turns out that it is good for business. 

A 2021 survey by Workiva found that 66% of investors believe it is an organization's responsibility to demonstrate its environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance. As many as 64% of investors believe they should put pressure on companies to be more transparent on their environmental footprint, emissions levels and climate responsibilities. Clearly, startups and anyone wishing for greater financial backing had better be prepared to demonstrate their ESG credentials. 

Increase is slowing, but PUE is not enough

Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) has served as a useful metric in determining the energy efficiency of a data center for many years. It has become the de facto standard, but how is it calculated? Divide the amount of power entering a data center by the power used to run its compute infrastructure.

For example: If a data center uses 10 MW of energy overall and IT equipment uses 5 MW, its PUE is 2.0. That would be regarded as a very inefficient data center — a score of 1.0 is ideal. The average PUE for data centers is 1.57, which has remained relatively stable for the past five years, according to a 2021 survey from the Uptime Institute.

Fifteen years ago, the popularization of PUE highlighted gross inefficiency and waste within the industry. Since then, PUE has played a part in IT equipment and data centers becoming far more energy efficient. 

“Data center power consumption increased as much as 90% in the 2000-2005 period, slowing to 24% in 2005-2010,” Johns said. 

The good news is that between 2010 and 2020 power usage only rose another 5% despite the rapid expansion of cloud computing, hyperscale data centers, real-time analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), smartphones and video streaming. 

But demonstrating how well you have slowed the increase in IT energy use isn’t a viable argument against pressure groups and environmental campaigners, which have data centers very much in the crosshairs. Local communities have already successfully prevented new data centers from opening, thwarted expansion plans of others, prevented hyperscalers from setting up mega data centers in their backyard and passed moratoriums on new facilities. Whether it is the U.S., Ireland, Australia, Singapore or the Netherlands, towns and regions are no longer lining up to attract new IT startups, data centers and hyperscaler mega-projects like they used to.

Some in the younger generation, in fact, regard data centers in the same light as a proposed new pipeline, a Walmart Superstore or a power plant. As a result, dependence on good PUE numbers must be supplemented by actions and statistics that demonstrate broader environmental responsibility. 

New environmental impact reporting

“Environmental sustainability reporting is a growing focus for many data center operators,” said Pankaj Sharma, Executive Vice President, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric. “Yet, the industry lacks a standardized approach for implementing, measuring and reporting on environmental impact.”

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Schneider Electric recently proposed a standardized environmental-impact reporting for data centers. Its framework consists of five key areas of impact to address with 23 metrics, and it grades data centers as beginners, advanced or leaders based on sustainability. It remains to be seen if this framework or some other set of metrics will become the new standard for IT and data center reporting. But some way of accurately measuring the carbon footprint in IT is needed — and it appears to be coming. 

“The data center industry has made significant progress in increasing energy efficiency; however, as digital demands increase, they must remain committed to driving long-term broader sustainability initiatives,” said Rob Brothers, an analyst at IDC. “You can’t have an impact on what you don’t measure; therefore, companies must establish clear and consistent metrics that account for not only efficient technology, but also the consumption (or possible destruction) of natural resources such as water, land and biodiversity.”


Drew Robb
Drew Robb

Drew Robb has been writing about IT, engineering and cybersecurity for more than 25 years. He's been published in numerous outlets and resides in Florida.