When it comes to figuring out how to run a sustainable business, the datacentre industry has more experience and expertise at its disposal than the average enterprise, but operators are still running into accusations of greenwashing when working towards their net-zero goals.
In recent years, many of the hyperscale datacentre operators have gone public with promises to shrink the environmental footprint of their operations, making time-sensitive pledges to ensure their sites run exclusively on renewable energy in the years to come.
And while the datacentre industry, as a whole, is making great strides towards becoming more environmentally friendly, there persists a disconnect between operators’ sustainability ambitions and their ability to deliver on them.
“The sector has multiple challenges to overcome when trying to build green datacentres,” Pankaj Sharma, global executive vice-president of the secure power division at multinational energy management company Schneider Electric, tells Computer Weekly.
“Firstly, if you want to make a datacentre where your source of primary energy is from a green grid, then your choices are limited in where you can build it because not every grid on this planet is green.
“Assuming you find that, operators will want to make sure the technology [inside their datacentres] is totally green – and that includes the infrastructure, software and compute.”
He continues: “The third challenge is around redundancy and the alternate sources [of energy] being used as backup, which have to be greener and can’t be fossil fuels. And that means operators need an infrastructure backed by renewables.”
Another factor operators need to bear in mind is that the further away their sites are from the grid, the more energy will be lost during the transmission process in the form of heat and because of electrical resistance in the network.
“One of the biggest challenges is transmission losses, because the further away you are from the grid, the higher the transmission loss. So, even if you have a green grid, but you’re 200 miles away, that’s a potentially large loss.”
Trying to overcome these obstacles while delivering on green goals has created a “sustainability gap”, which is leaving the datacentre industry open to unfair accusations of greenwashing, says Sharma.
“From a sustainability perspective, I think the datacentre industry is doing a better job than some other industries, because it isn’t a very old industry … and energy efficiency hasn’t been as much of a focus for other industries as it has been for datacentres,” he says.
Pankaj Sharma, Schneider Electric
That said, datacentre operators are under huge pressure from clients and investors to make public declarations about how they plan to make their operations leaner and greener, because – as Sharma puts it – if “you’re not sustainable, you can’t survive as a company”.
He continues: “It’s not like five years ago, when nobody cared about sustainability like they do today … what is happening now is a lot of companies are making commitments, but don’t really know how to [deliver on] those commitments.”
And this lack of knowledge means they might be at risk of over-promising and under-delivering on their green goals because the technology they need to achieve them has not been invented yet. Similarly, the individuals with the know-how needed to guide them towards achieving their sustainability goals are in short supply.
“The pressure is high for our [datacentre] clients from investors and from customers, and greenwashing is happening now because suddenly they need to be sustainable. People have made commitments. The big question is, do you have a plan – and do you know how to execute on that plan?” he says.
“Do I think the industry is knowingly greenwashing? I hope not, but it’s definitely a real issue today that needs to be dealt with pretty quickly.”
Especially as the validity of the workarounds some companies rely on to become carbon-neutral entities are increasingly being called into question, Sharma continues. A prime example of this is the “carbon credit” schemes that some enterprises rely on to offset their emissions.
The owner of these credits is typically allowed to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, and they can sell on any credits they do not use to another company that may need some extra leeway with regard to the emissions they produce.
“There are a lot of conversation nowadays on carbon credits – if you’re running a carbon-neutral operation, you can sell your carbon credits to me, and if I don’t have a carbon-neutral operation, I can use carbon credits to meet some of my emission goals,” Sharma states.
“As good as this sounds, the reality is my operation is still not becoming carbon neutral – I’m just buying a credit and using that to my advantage and paying money to buy that credit, right?”
On the upside, there is real progress being made on making the underlying infrastructure of datacentres greener, he says, pointing to the work Schneider has done to eradicate the amount of sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) greenhouse gas emissions generated by server farms.
This gas is typically used in the medium voltage switchgear component parts of a datacentre’s wider power infrastructure, but Schneider has since created a version that relies on fresh air to run.
“SF6 gas is at least a few thousand times worse than carbon dioxide emissions, so we’ve created switchgears that will run on the air we breathe,” says Sharma.
“We’ve done a lot in terms of making power distribution setups greener too. We’re building far more highly efficient uninterruptible power supply systems now that use 30% less material that come in green packaging and they [play into] the circular economy too.”
He continues: “For a datacentre client, if they can build an [underlying] infrastructure that is green and can put compute on top of that, which is green too, and are in locations where they can power their sites with renewable energy, then they can go in the direction of being carbon neutral with greater ease.”
Finding the people with the right skills and experience to help datacentre operators achieve their sustainability goals can also be a challenge, but is one that Sharma is convinced will become easier in time.
Attracting new talent
Presently, the datacentre industry is grappling with a well-documented and growing skills gap, on account of the fact there are not enough young people looking to pursue a career in this field, but one area many of them are taking a keen interest in is sustainability.
“We have very good experts in the datacentre industry today, but it’s an ageing population, so bringing the next generation in was becoming harder. And that’s had a lagging effect on the whole industry,” he says.
“The better news now is that sustainability is a top of mind concern for everybody, but especially where the younger generation are concerned. The ease with which we are able to convince people to go into that industry is higher than it used to be, so I think the skills gap we have today [in the datacentre world] may – over the next decade – start to close.”
This observation is based on the feedback Sharma has gained while touring universities and speaking to students who are pursuing qualifications in fields related to what Schneider Electric does.
“As part of my role, I travel around the world and speak to undergraduate students and explain to them how to make a connection between what you can do with Schneider Electric and how that plays into the power electronics space and saving the planet,” he says.
“There’s a direct connection there and that story is changing quite a bit now. Yes, we have a skills gap today, but I think we are heading in the right direction to fix that.”