Going Green Can be a Logistics Issue

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Also posted on: IT Infrastructure

I don’t think anyone wants to run a dirty data centre, to use a Greenpeace term. Much of the debate has tended to focus on balancing corporate social responsibility with the costs and returns of using renewable and other acceptable green fuels. Governments have weighed in with targets and incentives, some of which have encouraged a level of game playing, while Greenpeace has exposed that some of green power deals offered by the electricity utilities are not always as green as they seem.

If you are Google or Apple, happy to build your data centres in remote rural locations that either have plentiful sun, for huge solar panel farms, or plentiful wind for a sizeable wind farm then renewables offer some real benefits. But if your data centre is in a city or heavily built up area there are some unexpected challenges, but also a few opportunities for going green, or at least balancing up the scales a little.

When Digital Realty started building the biggest data centre in Europe at Crawley, which opened a few weeks ago, they investigated a number of off-grid power options. One option was to build on- site generation capability through a wood-chip biomass plant. In the end this was not viewed as a viable option. The issue wasn’t particularly the energy generation cost, rather the fact that, to deliver the 72 MVA required when fully kitted out, the on-site generation would have taken up 10%, or 3.5 acres of the site in an area of very high real estate costs. There was an added complication in the fact that over 30 heavy goods vehicles a day would be needed to deliver the wood-chip required. The impact on the roads in the local community would have been unsustainable, never mind the basic logistics complexities.

This issue of impact on local communities does have a different more positive impact in other areas. For AQL based in Leeds the proximity of housing near to their new data centre offered the opportunity to use the heat generated by the IT equipment to be used to heat homes as part of a local heat exchange. Consideration needed to be given to ensuring that there was a base load requirement, because you can’t store the heat generated by a data centre, but sharing heat had the added benefit of reducing noise given a reduced need for cooling. Adam Beaumont, the CEO of AQL, noted wryly that he sometimes felt that they had become quasi city planners.

The whole Green issue has climbed up the agenda for data centre operators. There are carrots and sticks ready to be wielded. Most large tenders for business now stipulate levels of sustainable, green energy, so the carrot is obvious. However the stick, in the shape of Greenpeace can also be quite painful as those who didn’t respond to their surveys on use of green energy found out to their cost. Given that the issues are not straightforward, and that both the benefits of getting it right and the risks of getting it wrong can be significant, data centre operators need to dedicate resource to both evaluating the options seriously, and managing relationships with organisations like Greenpeace.

Image credit: Balaji Photography

This post first appeared on the old Cassini Reviews website.