It’s no surprise that data centres use a lot of electricity, but what is happening in three boroughs in west London has taken that premise to a whole new level.
According to an article that appeared late last month in the Financial Times, new housing projects could be banned until 2035 in three boroughs – Hillingdon, Ealing and Hounslow – as a result of data centres taking up all the electricity capacity.
The story notes that the Greater London Authority (GLA) indicated in a letter to developers that “pressure on the grid in west London has been particularly acute because a number of data centres have been built nearby in recent years, taking advantage of fibre optic cables that run along the M4 corridor, before crossing the Atlantic.”
In a follow-up article, Data Center Dynamics reported that “major recent developments in the area include Virtus’ Stockley Park campus, which opened three years ago with four data centres, an Ark Data Centres development in Park Royal and numerous facilities around Heathrow.”
Could this happen here? IT World Canada reached out to John Annand, a director of the infrastructure team at Info-Tech Research Group and Andrew Eppich, managing director of data centre provider Equinix Canada for their thoughts.
Annand described the situation in London as “unusual in that you don’t have to go back very far in time to when municipalities or counties were bidding for data centre business because of ready access to an excess of power generating capacity.”
Eppich agreed, and said situations such as this can be avoided by implementing innovative strategies that revolve around sustainability into data centre infrastructure planning.
“IDC predicted that between 2021 and 2024, cloud computing could prevent the emission of more than one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. It also noted that large-scale data centres actually help to reduce CO2 emissions due to better power capacity management, optimized cooling and more power-efficient servers,” he observed. “Building sustainable digital infrastructure through innovation is a step in addressing the impacts of global climate change. To do this, data centres can deploy energy efficient technologies, innovations and strategies for reducing energy consumption, while addressing resilience and climate change.”
Examples of this, he said, include moving to low-carbon renewable energy, finding alternatives to diesel generators, optimizing air flow inside facilities, and shifting to liquid-based cooling.
The GLA note also stated that “data centres use electricity equivalent of towns or small cities to power servers and ensure resilience in service.”
Asked how accurate this statement was, Annand said, “decently accurate. The big data centres use approximately 100 MW/hour, which is enough to power about 80,000 North American homes. The city of Toronto consumes 4,500ish MW/hr, depending on the time of day.”
Eppich said that while data centres can consume a “significant amount of energy, they have the ability to increase the effectiveness of renewable energy generators, therefore providing balance on the grid.
“Most of the world’s Internet Protocol (IP) traffic goes through data centres. Greater connectivity is therefore propelling demand for data centre services and energy use. However, rapid improvements in energy efficiency have helped limit energy demand growth from data centres.
“Indeed, ongoing efficiency improvements for servers, storage devices, network switches and data centre infrastructure, as well as the high and growing share of services met by highly efficient cloud and hyperscale data centres, have mostly offset the growth in demand versus the required energy draw.”
Meanwhile, the key to avoiding what has happened in the three U.K. boroughs comes down to basic capacity planning, says Annand. “Municipal authorities need to balance their residential and industrial power needs and address the required growth of power generation that works for all parties.
“I would say it’s worth noting that most of the hyperscaler (Facebook, AWS, Microsoft, etc.) data centre operators have poured a ton of money into renewable energy sources and energy efficiencies for their data centers. And these are not greenwashing efforts to appease an ESG quarterly report item from the board of governors – these are fiscally motivated attempts to minimize the OpEx of these facilities.”
Cloud and data centre providers, said Eppich, should implement strategies that prioritize commitments to building and providing infrastructure that is sustainably responsible, equitable, and accessible.
“Equinix supplements its climate-neutral target efforts through designs that deploy energy-saving technologies and on-site generation solutions, such as adaptive air control systems, fuel cells that promote efficient and resilient energy consumption, improving energy consumption and PUE values using high temperature chilled water, and other green innovations,” he said. “By designing centres that are energy-efficient, providers will have the ability to avoid excessive energy consumption – in turn conserving natural resources and reducing environmental impact.”