Data centers are the backbone of the ICT industry, and their scale is immense, as is their energy demand. They have made huge headway in reducing the latter, however: if current trends in the efficiency of hardware and data centre infrastructure can be maintained, global data centre energy demand can remain nearly flat through 2022, the IEA estimates, despite a 60% increase in service demand -- an impressive result amid surging workloads.
Yet the Shift Project estimates that the global ICT industry is on track to grow from ~4% of global GHG today to nearly 8% by 2025, and while renewable energy is part of that solution, the world's data centres are hardly all plugged in to clean energy power purchase agreements (PPAs). Nor is the operational phase energy responsible for Scope 1 and 2 emissions the sole part of the story when it comes to data centre sustainability.
Scope 3 emissions in the supply chain require "intense focus and mitigation in this era of sustainable development via circular data center infrastructure and corresponding solutions" says Cristian Parrino, co-founder of startup Greengame -- as does a burgeoning e-waste crisis (a UN Environment Programme report in 2020 found that a record 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste was generated in 2019.)
Parrino has been working with non-profit OpenUK as part of a new international consortium dedicated to developing an open source blueprint for the carbon negative data centre: members to-date include ITRenew (US), the Open Compute Project (US), the Octopus Energy Centre for Net Zero (UK), the Scotland 5G Centre (UK), the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (DE) and ORCA Computing (UK). (OpenUK also announced March 9 that the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (SDIA) has become a donor. The two organisations will work together to support the development of new technologies and services for the telecoms, technology, software, and open data markets that prioritise carbon reduction and energy efficiency in the economy.)
The OpenUK-led consortium aims to enable a circular economy, based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
The blueprint -- which is being submitted as a COP26 proposal -- is based on the "three opens" of open source software, open hardware and open data. It also favours dramatically improved onsite and offsite facilities for server and network component repair and lifecycle extension. (Speaking to The Stack, OpenUK's CEO Amanda Brock paints a picture of 5G-enabled micro-data centres running on recycled/upcycled servers and network components for edge computing use cases).
As Parrino notes: "This [blueprint] needs to be fully transparent, particularly as we’re seeing many of the organisations that are announcing plans for their own net-zero data centres, are often doing so in silos and in a closed manner – so processes, insights, and economies of scale are seldomly shared and implemented with all industry constituents."
Ali Fenn, ITRenew's president, added “ITRenew is in the business of operationalising a global circular IT hardware industry, leveraging open hardware, working with the world’s largest hyperscale cloud service providers, and innovative global customers that seek to transform the way their data center infrastructure is deployed and managed and the impact is has on the climate. We are thrilled to be a part of this collaboration, which brings together open-source and energy experts with public sector constituents, and stands to present a holistic, unified solutions blueprint that can be adopted immediately and at scale to drive outsized carbon and materials benefits on the largest scale.”
The consortium is urging enhanced focus to ensure:
- Full energy efficiency in the built environment
- Power data centres via renewable energy sources
- Local or district level heat recovery solutions
- Electrification of transportation fleet
To tackle the supply chain issue, it wants to see (alongside much greater reuse of servers and componentsm where possible) arrangement for onsite and offsite repair and lifecycle extension of server and network parts, stripped back packaging, and collaboration across the supply chain around data centre component reuse, disassembly, reassembly, and recycling.
Max Schulze, Executive Chairman at SDIA added, “Open standards are critical to creating a more sustainable digital economy. SDIA’s partnership with OpenUK reflects our shared drive to make technology sustainable, while emphasising a common set of values that underpin our missions. By partnering together at this crucial time of climate crisis and transformation, we look forward to taking our joint message to COP26 as well as amplifying it throughout our communities going forward.”
The collaboration comes ahead of the UK hosting the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) conference in Glasgow, Scotland, from 1-12 November 2021.