The path ahead for governments to improve sustainability for data centres

By Ranamita Chakraborty

Policy analysts from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change share their views on how governments can take steps to reduce the energy burden that data centres carry and how energy efficiency can be assessed amid a lack of commonly agreed-upon guidelines.

Governments need to look at how they can reduce or limit the burden that data centres bring to the energy grid with measures such as adopting renewable energy or shifting to the cloud. Image: Canva

If you were sending emails or sharing a post on LinkedIn before reading this article, they would likely end up stored in warehouses containing tens of thousands of interconnected computer servers and related equipment. These warehouses, commonly known as data centres, consume massive amounts of energy often produced by fossil fuels.

The power consumption of data centres adds up to 1 per cent of all global electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. Since fossil fuels are still the dominant energy source globally, data centres eventually contribute to climate change.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, represented by Roman Skorzus, Policy Lead and Kenddrick Chan, Senior Policy Analyst, aim to tackle this issue by developing a set of policies for governments to encourage energy efficiency and sustainability for data centres in South-East Asia. In a new policy project, they want to propose practical regulations that may enable data centres and other digital infrastructure to become greener and more sustainable.

The idea was first featured in a LinkedIn post by Skorzus which highlighted his goal to form partnerships to make the global digital lifeline more sustainable. GovInsider speaks to Skorzus and Chan to understand the need for data centres to go green and what governments can do about it.

Transitioning to renewable energy


Data centres are essential for storing and processing data but they are also extremely energy intensive which governments need to address, said Skorzus. In Singapore alone, data centres account for around 7 per cent of its overall power usage, according to the Ministry of Communications and Information.

In 2019, Singapore issued a moratorium on new data centres citing concerns about environmental sustainability and limited space. The moratorium has since been lifted with a new requirement for new data centres to prove that they are sustainable.

Globally, most countries still rely heavily on fossil fuels to produce energy, shared Skorzus. That means when countries add more data centres into the energy system, these centres will be major contributors to the consumption of fossil fuels.

Governments must then look at how they can reduce or limit the burden that data centres impose on the energy grid, he added. For example, in the Philippines, the energy system is already overstretched. Supply and demand are highly interconnected so there is not much room for growth. Renewable energies can address this challenge as they are a sustainable energy source and able to supply data centres directly, he said.

“What governments should do is focus on the implementation of renewable energy and not just for data centres, but for the greater good,” said Skorzus.

However, renewable energy comes with its own set of limitations. For example, data centres consume different amounts of energy throughout the day. There are peak times when they consume more energy than the average, such as during business hours, but renewable energy can’t work all the time as the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing, noted Skorzus.

To address this challenge, Skorzus suggested using algorithms and weather prediction to optimise the supply of renewable energy to the energy grid. Smart grids and energy storage facilities can also be used to absorb excess renewable energy during peak production periods and release it to the grid when necessary, Skorzus added.

Singapore’s Energy Market Authority had previously spoken to GovInsider about how digital twins and energy storage systems are supporting the country’s energy grid in adapting to the challenges of renewable energy.

Moving to the cloud


Another measure governments can take is to encourage businesses to move to the cloud. This means moving to a large data centre hosted by cloud service providers instead of on-premise data centres, said Skorzus.

He explains that hyperscale data centres are much more efficient than small server rooms or small data centres because they have scalability and advanced cooling technology. Also, it is easier to handle data centres if systems are aggregated in one place. When more companies move to hyperscale data centres, the overall energy demand is going to be less because old, outdated or inefficient systems will get shut down, said Skorzus.

He also suggested that governments could encourage cloud adoption by moving their own services or government IT systems to the cloud instead of having their own server farms, which may be less efficient. However, he realises that this is a tricky recommendation as big tech companies that offer cloud services may have their own commercial interests in mind.

The government of Singapore is on track to moving 70 per cent of its workloads to the cloud by 2023, said Chan Cheow Hoe, Singapore’s Government Chief Digital Technology Officer earlier this year.

Rethinking efficiency


The design of the data centre is another area governments can consider regulating especially in the age of 5G and hyperscale data centres, Chan said.

“They need to be modular, everything should meet a certain [green] specification, not just in terms of design, but also in terms of infrastructure and equipment deployed,” he explained.

He noted that governments can implement policies to have data centres use energy-friendly equipment and implement efficient operations. For instance, data centre operators can consider merging services and applications to a single physical server. This process is known as consolidation and aims to maximise efficiency while preventing server underutilisation and unnecessary energy consumption.

The Singapore government, for example, has come up with a Green Data Centre Technology Roadmap. This framework provides recommendations to data centres to help them reduce energy consumption and improve energy efficiency of constituent systems.

While there are certain commonly accepted methods for assessing data centre sustainability, having different operational environments means there is a lack of consensus on what “sustainable” actually entails, a challenge that has become increasingly pertinent in recent years as more data centres are being constructed, Chan noted.

Take power usage effectiveness (PUE), for instance. The PUE is a common method used by organisations to assess the sustainability of the data centre.  A perfect (albeit unattainable) PUE would be 1.0, with a number closer to the 1.0 indicating better energy efficiency.

But while “lower means better”, data centre operators might disagree on what PUE number should be the industry benchmark, Chan said. For instance, tropical countries in Southeast Asia might consider a PUE of 1.4 to 1.3 very efficient, while countries like Norway or the United States may aim for a lower number. The European Commission considers a PUE of 1.2 to be very efficient while a PUE of 2.5 is inefficient.

He notes there is currently more widespread acceptance of other metrics such as water usage effectiveness (WUE) and carbon usage effectiveness (CUE). While PUE is a traditional marker, more within the industry are raising their voices that it should not be the single metric of data centre sustainability.

A few months ago, the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, an initiative that includes 74 data centre operators and 23 associations in Europe, set a water efficiency target as part of a plan to improve efficiency and conservation.

Policy recommendations


Though major economies in ASEAN recognise the economic benefits brought about by data centres, they may not be addressing the negative impacts they have. The Institute is working on a project to develop policies for governments to encourage and foster energy efficiency and sustainability for data centres in ASEAN.

They will be examining the different policy frameworks in each ASEAN country regarding the sustainability of data centres. Skorzus explains that the Institute is looking at the whole region as there is a growing demand for digitalisation and data centres.

Data centre operators want scalability and if they build one in Indonesia, they are likely to want to build another in the Philippines or Malaysia, Skorzus says.

“This is why we want to create policy recommendations that ideally all the [ASEAN] countries can adopt and create the scalability,” said Skorzus, adding that some countries in the region have similar policy environments.

Skorzus and Chan plan to eventually expand the project to Africa, where they hope to share their findings and tailor recommendations based on local contexts.

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