01Mar
The Effects of Data Centers on the Environment

The Effects of Data Centers on the Environment

On: March 1, 2022 Comments: 0
 

There are several million data centers globally. Each power-hungry facility can pack in tens of thousands of servers, guzzling environmental resources more than entire countries. The combined environmental effect of all of these data centers has become a growing concern to governments and the broader public. Data center operators must respond.

In recent years we have seen the rapid emergence of massive “hyperscale” data centers. Over just a few years, these giant data centers—with the biggest being the size of multiple football fields—have literally doubled the amount of energy they use, racing towards 100 terawatt-hours per year of energy consumption. They have thousands of servers running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. New “edge” data centers are also sprouting up and adding to the already-high power consumption rates.

Data centers serve as the giant “brains” of our Internet age, constantly processing to enable society’s growing dependence on social networks, online banking, cloud computing, and an ever-expanding list of devices. There is a dark side to this data center dependence, however: the detrimental and, until recently, mostly overlooked toll on the environment.

What Are Data Centers and How Do They Work?

Data centers are concentrated locations hosting banks and banks of servers and networking gear. They process mountains of information and on any given day, tens of millions of servers in the over 7.2 million data centers around the world are running applications for a range of customers around the globe.

Data centers drive nearly all of the information flowing through laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other digital devices. Whether posting a cat video on Twitter or working on a spreadsheet in the cloud, both cause a chain reaction and use energy. This energy use includes not just the personal devices themselves, but all that’s consumed by the centers to feed the devices.

Data center energy continues to accelerate as billions of devices continue to join the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) becomes ubiquitous, and other applications like blockchain-powered cryptocurrency evolve. In addition to the ITE infrastructure to support all this digital activity, data centers also need cooling equipment to manage the heat generated by all this computing.

The Environmental Toll from Data Centers

data centers
Source: Shutterstock

While the development of mega data centers has proven hugely beneficial for businesses and the global economy and helps billions of people work and play each day, it is extracting a huge toll on the environment. It takes electricity, and vast amounts of it, to power the millions of servers, and to run the cooling systems the remove the immense amount of heat generated by power-hungry processors.

With approximately 62% of the world’s electricity supply coming from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas, electricity production generates the second-largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In some cases, as much as half of the electricity guzzled in data centers goes into archaic air-cooling systems rather than powering the servers themselves. Moving from air-cooled systems to liquid cooling solutions can eliminate much of this waste and significantly reduce the harmful effects on the environment.

How Bad Is It So Far?

In 2016, it was reported that the world’s data centers used more than Britain’s total electricity consumption – 416.2 terawatt-hours, significantly higher than the UK’s 300 terawatt-hours. At 3% of the global electricity supply (2019 figures), data centers have the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry.

Recognizing this trend, the European Union (EU) has threatened to enact green data center laws aimed at getting data centers on the continent to be climate neutral by 2030. Reports suggest that a group of European data center operators—in an attempt to preempt any legislation—have signed a pact to self-regulate themselves. While the push to reduce the climate impact of data centers is playing out in Europe, it has the potential of a ripple effect across the Atlantic as some companies that signed the pact in Europe are US-based multinationals, including Amazon Web Services, Google, Equinix, and CyrusOne.

Several other aspects of the data center industry harm the environment. These facilities are big users of batteries that require mining heavy metals like lead. Other common sources of data center pollution include diesel generators and electronic waste. As with the more central concerns of powering servers and cooling systems, the severity of these environmental problems depends on how efficiently the data center runs. For example, there are some cooling systems that use toxic coolants with global warming potential (GWP). This is in sharp contrast to liquid cooling systems like GRC’s that use environmental-friendly materials.

Developments like this have drawn widespread media attention and have pushed Amazon, Microsoft, and Google (accounting for half of all major hyperscale data centers– 659 in 2021) to move towards greener data centers that use renewable energy and more efficient cooling technology.

How Does the Future Look?

The broader economy is predicted to use 4% more power in 2022 as it recovers from COVID, while experts expect data centers to use hundreds more terawatt-hours in the coming years, adding to the environmental strain. The exact numbers depend on user behavior and how efficient future processors will be. It will take some technological innovations and responsible ownership for data centers to contribute to tomorrow’s low-carbon economy.

With that said, all eyes will be on data centers to operate in a more environmentally accountable manner. With crypto and 5G and high-performance computing on the rise, we will see data centers using more resources, especially at the edge. Processors including those for graphics and AI and crypto multi-core chips will burn through far more power. The pressure on data centers to be environmentally responsible is ever-increasing.

Is There a Way to Lessen the Impact?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are ways that data centers can immediately begin to reduce their carbon footprints and lessen their environmental impact. For one, facilities can commit to transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. Renewable energy sources including processed vegetable oil and geothermal, in particular, will become more popular as data centers look to go carbon-neutral.

Another option for reducing the environmental impact is to employ data center infrastructure management (DCIM) tools to measure the lifecycle environment conditions of a facility. This approach can track the performance of individual servers or other assets to enable smarter risk management and maintenance.

Source: Shutterstock

One of the largest impacts on data center sustainability is to tackle the number one source of unnecessary power consumption by upgrading from air cooling to liquid immersion cooling. Liquid immersion cooling systems are far more energy-efficient and can siphon off over a thousand times more heat from servers than archaic air-cooled systems do. This makes cooling much less of an electricity drain, considerably lessening the environmental strain.

Discover Data Center Cooling With GRC

Single-phase, liquid immersion cooling offers by far the most efficient method to cool data centers and shrink their carbon footprint. This remarkable technology is making waves throughout the industry from hyperscalers to the edge and everywhere between.

With liquid immersion cooling, data centers can cut 90% of their cooling energy needs. Not only does that prevent tons of carbon emissions from polluting the environment, but it also cuts costs drastically. Furthermore, the immersed servers are protected against corrosion, dust, and a range of other risks, lowering the cost of maintenance and replacement.

Data centers have rapidly become integral drivers of all aspects of modern society, and with that role comes the burden of accountability to manage their harmful emissions responsibly. The opportunity to run more environmentally friendly and lower cost operations exists with advanced cooling solutions from GRC. Explore this responsible approach.

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