Data centre innovations geared towards climate neutrality

By Equinix

Jason Plamondon, Regional Sustainability Senior Manager, Equinix Asia-Pacific, shares how global climate commitments are accelerating innovations to maximise efficiency and sustainability.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology may have found a way to grow furniture inside a lab. This can reduce deforestation and material waste generated from transforming once cylindrical-trees to oddly-shaped chairs and tables. Elsewhere, hexagonal towers act as a vacuum cleaner that sucks up polluted air, and releases clean air in replacement.

Such cutting-edge innovation may be the key to a more sustainable future, and one company – Equinix – is leading the way. The company made a commitment to use 100 per cent clean and renewable energy in 2015 and has since pledged to become climate neutral globally by 2030. This goal is backed by science-based targets for emissions reductions, and a comprehensive sustainability and green financing agenda.

Jason Plamondon, the Sustainability Senior Manager at Equinix Asia-Pacific, shares how the company is innovating to meet these targets by making data centres and digital infrastructure more sustainable.

Innovating for more sustainable data centres

Data centres consumed 1 per cent of global final electricity demand in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. But Equinix is working to reduce its consumption by finding ways to make data centres more energy efficient.

“We have the responsibility to harness the power of technology to create a more accessible, equitable and sustainable future,” says Plamondon. In 2021, Equinix launched its first Co-Innovation Facility (CIF) in Washington DC, the United States. Within the CIF, Equinix works with key partners to test new and innovative technology that can help it achieve its sustainability commitments.

One way Equinix is making data centres more sustainable is by improving the cooling process. Data centres need generally cool environments to remain functional, but cooling them is highly energy intensive.

In fact, cooling makes up about 40 per cent of a data centre’s total energy consumption, according to research published at the 8th International Conference on Applied Energy in 2016.

Equinix is exploring new and improved cooling solutions such as liquid cooling, which is able to conduct heat away from the data storage systems more efficiently than traditional air cooling.

This new direct liquid cooling system, developed by tech firm ZutaCore and deployed in the Equinix CIF, not only cools data storage systems more efficiently, but also takes up less space. This can reduce the risk of IT meltdown, decrease the carbon footprint of data centres, and minimise the use of natural resources like energy, land, and water.

A continued commitment for green innovation

Innovation is a constant work in progress.  Since 2011, Equinix has invested more than US$158 million as part of its ongoing commitment to reduce energy consumption within its data centers.

“Equinix continually explores and deploys numerous technologies to achieve improved reliability, efficiency, performance and sustainability,” Plamondon says. “This includes the 2020 launch of our Energy Efficiency Center of Excellence (EE CoE) programme to address different best practices and innovation opportunities globally.”

The engineering-driven programme supports local operations teams to achieve ambitious energy efficiency targets. Since its inception, it has made significant progress in fostering innovation, upgrading infrastructure, and increasing the adoption of  sustainable technologies in data centres around the globe.

The programme requires all Equinix data centres to create a 5-year plan to track how they will improve data centre performance, evaluated against established performance indicators. The 5-year plan framework is supplemented with information to help these centres calculate energy savings, create a business case, and obtain project funding.

Since 2020, the company has issued US$4.9 billion in green bonds, becoming the fourth largest global issuer in the investment grade green bond market. These bonds have already funded multiple projects in key areas of innovation including green buildings, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Such efforts are just part of the company’s commitments to becoming climate neutral by 2030.

Cleaner energy to power data centres

But energy efficiency alone is not sufficient. To reduce the carbon emissions of data centres, organisations also need to find cleaner energy sources. Equinix is looking into three potential alternatives.

The first is fuel cells. Fuel cells are able to generate cleaner energy with less carbon emissions than traditional gas-fuelled power plants, and require no water to operate.

Furthermore, fuel cells can run alongside the traditional electricity grid. This means that Equinix can use both to “offset overall grid emissions”, while having the energy security of the electrical grid still in place.

Another avenue is alternative fuels. For instance, Equinix is exploring powering its generators with alternative fuels including a bio-based liquid fuel known as Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) instead of diesel. This can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90 per cent.

It is also “considering the role that hydrogen might play in the future of energy”, Plamondon says. Hydrogen is able to generate electricity with the potential for near-zero greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. When used to power fuel cells, its only by-product is water vapour and warm air, as opposed to carbon.

In 2021, Equinix joined seven other firms to launch a 2.5 million Euro project. This will see them developing a novel fuel cell that will pave the path to using green hydrogen for power as opposed to natural gas.

Finally, Equinix is looking into optimising energy storage methods to power its data centres. For example, its partners software-defined power company VPS and sodium-ion battery business Natron Energy have deployed a new cabinet power management and battery energy storage system within the Equinix CIF for live-load testing.

This system manages power draw and minimises wasted or “stranded power”, leading to a potential energy efficiency improvement of 30 to 50 per cent, Plamondon explains.

In metropolitan Singapore, renewable energy coverage is already 100 per cent, through the purchase of renewable energy certificates. Globally, Equinix is covered by over 95 per cent renewable energy. With the advent of clean energy tech, Equinix is planning to make this 100 per cent by 2030.

A digital infrastructure company on the forefront of sustainability, Equinix continues to drive innovation for green solutions, ensuring that data is stored in energy efficient and low-carbon data centres. At the same time, they continue to enable digital transformation by providing organisations the optionality, scalability and agility to multiply their value.

As Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat.” When organisations embrace innovation, they can transform the threat of climate change into an opportunity to create a better Earth for generations to come.