30.06.2020 : Mike Quirk and more

Carbon-centric data centre design

The growth of data centres, cloud computing and digital services presents a significant opportunity to leverage New Zealand's low carbon electricity grid and turn the country into a hub of high-energy digital services.

Data centres and digital services by their very nature consume a massive amount of energy. Imagine thousands of home laptops all stacked up; with rows upon rows of them in a pristine (near operating theatre) facility. That’s what a data centre looks like. But what you don’t see is their energy use – it’s hidden from the ultimate consumer.

A recent publication by Data Centre Knowledge said data centres are responsible for 1% of annual global electricity. To put that into context, two large data centres consume as much power as Auckland’s CBD. While delivering a four-minute music video to your mobile device uses about the same amount of energy stored in an AA battery. This might not sound like much, but some of the most popular songs are viewed over five billion times and, at this level of consumption, the carbon emissions related to listening to that one song adds up very quickly.

The most progressive data companies recognise how the carbon emissions related to hidden energy use from data centres needs to be addressed. Climate change represents a long-term existential threat, but it can also present a reputational risk that could impact on a data company’s social license to operate.

The current state of data centre design involves a somewhat myopic view towards energy efficiency. While this will help to reduce carbon emissions, taking an energy efficiency perspective inevitably directs investment away from more cost-effective ways of mitigating climate change related risks. Instead, taking a carbon-centric view to data centre efficiency better directs investment decisions; addressing energy efficiency and climate change risks simultaneously. This change in thinking and perspective also unlocks a number of opportunities including integrating data centres with other utility services, such as energy generation, water treatment and recycling plants.

Many of the decisions around data centre design are based on the resulting resilience of the data service being provided. For example, the risk of natural and human hazards, connections to global data infrastructure and the redundancy of electrical and cooling systems are important for maintaining contracted levels of service. These core resilience requirements are often at odds with a low carbon outcome.

This is where New Zealand is unique – developing a data centre in New Zealand unlocks the ability to align resilience and low carbon design outcomes.

Why? New Zealand is politically stable, with a strong legal system and a government that encourages the development of technology-based services. While the country is exposed to some significant natural hazards (e.g. earthquakes), we understand how to manage these. Furthermore, we have a low carbon electricity grid and are becoming increasingly more connected to the rest of the world through investment in new undersea fibre optic links to Australia and the West Coast of the USA. And because we’re growing, there’s opportunity to simultaneously develop utilities and infrastructure that can be designed to work in harmony with data services.

This opportunity – the delivery of low carbon data services – could make a significant difference to global carbon emissions. Our data, our memories, our shared identity are important. Knowing that they are safe, and that they are not contributing to the damaging impacts of climate change, is important.

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