Schneider pioneers data centre sustainability framework

By Kate Birch
Schneider Electric’s first-of-its-kind sustainability framework standardises environment-impact reporting for data centres, as stakeholder pressure rises

It’s no secret that data centres are energy-guzzling facilities, responsible for around 2% of all greenhouse gases – almost the same as the entire global airline industry. It’s also no secret that demand for the computing power that data centres provide is growing, and exponentially. 

And as digital demand grows, and therefore demand for more data centres, so does the pressure from key stakeholders for environmental impact reporting and reduction. Because not all data centre operators are as transparent about their environmental impact as they should be. 

To address this issue, Schneider Electric, considered the world’s most sustainable company according to Corporate Knights, has stepped up to the sustainability plate with the unveiling of a first-of-its-kind sustainability framework for data centres.

"Environmental sustainability reporting is a growing focus for many data centre operators. Yet, the industry lacks a standardised approach for implementing, measuring, and reporting on environmental impact,” says Pankaj Sharma, executive VP, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric.

Schneider Electric developed a holistic framework with standardised metrics to guide operators and the industry at large. Our intention with this framework is to improve benchmarking and progress toward environmental sustainability to protect natural resources for future generations."

Data centre sustainability metrics drive sustainability strategy

Designed to empower the data centre industry to take control of their sustainability goals, and mitigate the impact they have on the environment, this industry-first comprehensive framework proposes five areas of environmental impact inclusive of key metrics for data centre operators in various stages of their sustainability journeys.

Not only does tracking and reporting on standardised sustainability metrics help drive international teams’ alignment improvements and increase transparency for external stakeholders, but it also allows data centre operators to:
 

  • Remove the difficulty of selecting impactful metrics for tracking
  • Improve communication and alignment with internal teams on sustainability objectives
  • Act on the data to improve operations
  • Enable regular and consistent reporting for external stakeholders (investors, regulators, potential employees)
  • Standardise benchmarking across industry peers around the globe 

Why such a framework is needed and why now

Data centres are the backbone of today’s digital world and demand for them continues to grow, accelerated in part by the pandemic. According to Gartner, this year, data centre systems spending is expected to reach US$196bn, a nearly 10% increase compared to 2020; and in 2022 it will hit US$207bn, representing a 5.8% increase y-o-y.

Mounting pressures from investors, regulars, shareholders, customers and employees also drive the need for improved environmental-impact reporting in data centre operations. Companies are going to be held accountable for their Greenhouse Gas Protocol Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, making it much harder for them to get away with greenwashing sustainability efforts.

However, according to Schneider, many data centre operators lack sustainability expertise and face a daunting task of determining what metrics to track and strategies to implement.

To contend with such an increase in digital bandwidth and IT-sector electricity demand, as well as pressure from stakeholders, the industry demands a holistic and standardised approach to environmental sustainability.

According to Rob Brothers, Program Vice President for the Datacenter and Support Services Program at IDC, while the data centre industry has made significant progress in increasing energy efficiency, as digital demands increase they must remain committed to driving long-term broader sustainability initiatives. 

“You can't have an impact on what you don't measure; therefore, companies must establish clear and consistent metrics that account for not only efficient technology, but also the consumption (or possible destruction) of natural resources such as water, land and biodiversity."

Because while some data centres are transparent about their environmental impact, others are less so.

Take the issue of data centre water consumption, used indirectly via electricity generation and directly via cooling. While in the US, for example, data centre water consumption (1.7bn litres per day) is small compared to total water consumption (1,218bn litres per day), there are issues of transparency with less than a third of data centre operators measuring water consumption. 

Energy efficiency of data centres already increasing

The data centre industry has made significant progress in increasing energy efficiency to date. Some data centres are already implementing renewable energy measures by installing massive-capacity experimental batteries from firms such as Tesla.

Take data centre technology company Switch, which is now using large-scale energy storage from Tesla to boost its use of solar energy for its massive data centre campuses in Las Vegas and Reno. Meanwhile, UK-headquartered data centre operator Verne Global has a 40-acre data centre campus in Iceland powered by renewable energy, partnering with Integra Mission Critical in a bid to optimise the delivery of sustainable high-intensity compute at scale.

Microsoft is also on the sustainability case with plans to reduce water use in its data centres by 95% by 2024 using a new approach to temperature management.

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