IT efficiency: How to reduce data center carbon

Powering data centers with clean energy is growing in importance for data center operators. But how can this be achieved?

Focusing on supplying low-carbon electricity to data centers may not be the most effective strategy in addressing climate change. That is according to a new paper by a group of researchers published recently in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change. (“Characteristics of low-carbon data centres”)

The paper’s authors, including Eric Masanet, Arman Shehabi, and Jonathan Koomey, write: “The article … makes clear that just switching an inefficient data center to low-carbon electricity isn’t a good choice, because it uses up scarce low-carbon electricity that could otherwise be used elsewhere.”

In his blog Jonathan G. Koomey shares the key paragraph from the paper’s conclusions:

“Here we offer the following recommendations to policymakers who seek to design effective incentives for low-carbon data centres: all existing data centres should maximize IT-device efficiency, especially as these devices can turn over quickly and thereby deliver rapid improvements. Decisions regarding when to upgrade remaining devices to more efficient models can be informed in part by a break-even analysis of the embodied emissions required to manufacture new devices versus the operational energy savings that would be realized. New data centres should locate in areas with ample free cooling and/or low-carbon electricity grids to further push operations towards better energy and carbon performance. In new or existing facilities where optimal IT-device efficiency is not feasible, significant reductions in PUE critically rise in importance as a policy aim (but still result in higher energy-use levels than efficient IT devices would deliver). Where such PUE reductions are constrained by location (for example, a lack of free cooling), procuring low-carbon electricity — either from local electricity providers or through the installation of reduced-carbon self-generation such as Solid Oxide Fuel Cells — becomes the next chief lever after energy efficiency has reached its practical limit. With these insights in mind, public- and private-sector policymakers can accelerate the transition to a low-carbon Internet by aligning their incentives with data centre characteristics that matter.

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