How Data Centers are Leading the Way in Global Sustainability

Efficiency, circular economy principles and clean energy are key elements of success

Jennifer Ruch
How Data Centers are Leading the Way in Global Sustainability

As the global business community adjusts its understanding of ownership and responsibility around climate change, sustainability and the uncertainties around COVID-19, leading data centers are innovating around a few key areas to ensure continued progress on environmental sustainability. The data center of the future is no longer just about space, time and availability, it’s about efficiency, innovation and reliability for all stakeholders, from customers, investors and employees to surrounding communities. We are excited to share IDC’s new InfoBrief, “Datacenters and Sustainability Goals: How Efficient and Resilient Datacenters Accelerate Sustainability Progress.” Now, more than ever, businesses want to “green” their supply chains and purchase digital infrastructure and services from sustainable suppliers who can help them meet their own sustainability targets.

Maximize efficiencies

The digital economy is expanding at an unprecedented rate, and even more so during the global pandemic, but investments in energy efficiency measures by the data center industry have helped to avoid a spike in resource consumption. Enhancing data center efficiency for the future and as workloads move to the edge will require an even more efficient use of all resources.

The IDC InfoBrief[i] outlines three key activities that data center operators can implement to improve their operational efficiency:

  • Deploy artificial intelligence and real-time resource management tools.
  • Support smart grid integration through metering and forecasting.
  • Maximize datacenter utilization rates.

At Equinix, energy efficiency and sustainable data center design are core to our environmental commitments. Despite Equinix’s rapid growth and subsequent increased demand for energy, our global operational average Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), a key measure of data center energy efficiency, has improved annually. Our continuous investment in energy efficiency upgrades, retrofits, and improvements have avoided 530,000 metric tons in carbon emissions around the world.

Equinix continues to leverage our position as the world’s digital infrastructure company to deploy innovations to benefit all our customers such as IBX SmartViewTM, our data center infrastructure management (DCIM) Software as a Service (SaaS) and machine learning to identify new energy efficiencies and maximize the data center environment. Most recently Equinix launched the Energy Efficiency Center of Excellence (COE) and Co-Innovation Facility (CIF), which are focused on advancing energy efficiency improvements. The COE is an engineering-driven program to embed efficiency improvements into our business as usual infrastructure replacements and upgrades. In the CIF, we work with innovative partners to pilot and showcase advanced power, cooling and control methodologies for use in our future data centers.

Design and build to reduce embedded impact

All data centers companies face the same challenge of how to design and operate their facilities to reduce impact without sacrificing performance or reliability. Data centers, like many other buildings, are built using materials such as concrete, steel, and iron, which have high amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions embodied within them. However, thoughtful design and innovations can minimize carbon intensive construction through the use of sustainable materials and processes. Data centers can also be designed to reuse waste products in operation or disseminate useful wastes (e.g. waste heat) to local communities.

IDC’s InfoBriefi highlights two approaches data centers can take to reduce their embedded impact:

  • Apply circular economy principles to waste heat recycling, water recycling.
  • Use sustainable building materials and processes to reduce embodied carbon (such as lower carbon concrete).

A circular economy approach  aims to decouple economic growth from consumption of finite resources by designing out waste, reusing products and materials and regenerating natural systems.[ii] Increasingly, data centers are incorporating circular economy strategies in construction and operations to reduce climate and environmental impacts. To minimize our embedded climate impact, Equinix designs its data center sites to take advantage of local environmental conditions and provides “co-benefits” to local communities. For example, the HE3 Equinix IBX data center in Helsinki exports recovered heat to a district network to supply about 12,000 nearby residents with a source of low-carbon heat. Where possible, Equinix leverages water recovery systems, rainwater capture and greywater recycling to reduce water consumption within our datacenters. Looking ahead, we are evaluating methods to reduce the embodied carbon in our building materials for our new data centers.

Increase reliance on renewable and clean energy sources

Expanding the use of clean energy for data center operations is essential to moving the industry towards carbon neutrality. Data centers are driving the uptake in renewable energy globally – positively impacting carbon emissions – but availability, reliability, and cost are still barriers to renewable energy procurement in some regions. Partnerships and collaboration between utilities, policymakers, and data center operators can create an ecosystem for greater renewable energy opportunities for the data center industry and for others.

The IDC Infobriefi defines three activities that data centers can focus on to increase reliance on renewable and clean energy sources:

  • Increase reliance on renewable energy generated onsite and offsite.
  • Align renewable energy supply with demand through time-of-day workload optimization.
  • Utilize fuel cells as a cleaner energy source of primary or backup power.

In 2019, Equinix achieved 92% of our long-term goal of using 100% clean and renewable energy for our global platform. Equinix has increased our procurement of renewables by 10% year-over-year on a gigawatt hour (GWh) basis. Even as our data center footprint and energy consumption doubled, Equinix has reduced our carbon footprint by 60% since 2015. The fuel cells we have deployed on-site further help us reduce reliance on the power grid and improve our energy security with reliable power that is 20% to 45% cleaner than the equivalent natural gas-powered generation from a utility. Our leadership in the clean energy space has earned Equinix a number of sustainability awards, including top rankings with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), EcoVadis and Investor’s Business Daily to name a few.

To learn more about how data center industry leaders can maximize the benefits of technology while minimizing its impact on our planet, read IDC’s “Datacenters and Sustainability Goals.”

You may also be interested in reading our other blogs on sustainability, energy and the environment.


[i] IDC InfoBrief, sponsored by Equinix, Datacenters and Sustainability Goals, Oct 2020.

[ii] Ellen MacAurthur Foundation, Concept: What is a circular economy?

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