In the data center industry, our customers come to us for help achieving their digital transformation goals and future-proofing their operations. But we also know they have sustainability targets they need to meet. At Equinix, we believe that being successful in the modern digital economy and operating sustainably don’t have to be competing priorities.
To help customers pursue their sustainability targets, we’re investing and innovating to build the data center of the future. Creating a sustainable approach to digital infrastructure won’t be easy: As data volumes skyrocket and latency-sensitive digital applications pop up to consume that data, demand for distributed, interconnected digital infrastructure will only continue to accelerate. However, we can’t place short-term demand ahead of long-term sustainability requirements.
The data center of the future will need to be clean and efficient to help enterprises meet their sustainability targets, but we believe it must also be:
- Optimized for specific requirements
- Flexible and upgradeable
Driving renewable energy demand
As the provider of International Business Exchange™ (IBX®) data centers, we believe it’s our responsibility to invest in renewables as much as possible and in as many different places as possible. In fact, we’re working toward a goal of 100% renewable energy coverage by 2030. During 2022, we achieved 96% renewable energy coverage across our global operations, our furthest progress toward our goal so far. One way we’re doing this is by prioritizing power purchase agreements (PPAs) in the markets that we serve. Most recently, we announced PPAs to back five new solar farms in Spain, totaling 225 megawatts of renewable energy.
However, we believe in going a step further by also driving demand for additional clean (low carbon) and renewable energy production. For example: Most fuel cells today can incorporate up to a 50% mix of hydrogen. We have diesel generators capable of running on cleaner fuels such as natural gas and hydrotreated vegetable oils (HVOs). Through our investments in alternative on-site generation innovations, we are driving a future market for more sustainable solutions.
Today, fuels such as green hydrogen and HVOs remain difficult to source reliably at scale due to a lack of infrastructure, which means they’re also expensive. Data center operators will provide an important market for clean and renewable fuels going forward. This demand will inspire providers to invest more in clean and renewable infrastructure, which in turn will drive costs down. This is just one example of the kind of innovations needed to create clean, efficient and sustainable data centers worldwide.
Balancing reliability and sustainability
Equinix IBX data centers are part of our customers’ critical infrastructure, and they expect our data centers to be online when they need them. For us, a data center that’s clean and efficient doesn’t count for much unless it’s also highly reliable.
The challenge that comes from running reliable data centers in a sustainable way is that power from the commercial grid may not be available in the aftermath of an emergency. There needs to be an on-site backup available to account for this potential point of failure. This has traditionally meant diesel generators, which of course are neither clean nor efficient.
For this reason, we’re leading the charge to invest in alternatives to diesel for backup fuel sources. As mentioned previously, we’re piloting HVOs as an alternative fuel source at our sites today. While HVOs aren’t carbon neutral, they are cleaner and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90% compared to diesel. For now, we believe it’s important to invest in multi-fuel generators that can run on cleaner fuel sources as they become more readily available in the future.
Strategize globally; design and build locally
No two data centers are exactly alike. They’re all intended to fulfill different needs in different locations throughout the world, and this fact needs to be included in the sustainability equation. For one thing, different locations require a different approach to renewable energy. For instance, solar power plants require a lot of land to produce energy at the scale required to power an entire enterprise-grade data center. Most data centers are located in densely populated urban areas, so building large-scale solar plants near data centers would typically be impractical.
Instead, operators can install solar cells in places like rooftops and parking lots to support greater energy market transformation by bringing renewable energy online. This is just one example of a small step that data center operators can take to help optimize their sustainability strategies in local markets. If they take enough small steps, they can add up to a big impact.
Data center operators must also adapt their cooling strategies for different workloads in different locations. Liquid cooling can support high-density applications that traditional air cooling may not be able to address efficiently. As higher-density chips become more widely available, the industry will inevitably shift toward liquid cooling to meet the requirements of those chips. This shift will help data center operators and their customers as they pursue their sustainability targets. For example, liquid cooling lessens the need for power-hungry air-conditioning systems.
However, air-cooling infrastructure is widely in use today, and the equipment is simple and standardized. For this reason, we don’t expect the industry to fully shift away from air cooling. For now, operators need to accommodate a hybrid of both liquid cooling and air cooling.
Also, it would be wrong to suggest that air-cooled data centers can’t be efficient and sustainable. For instance, operating data centers within higher temperature ranges, aligned to ASHRAE A1A standards, can minimize the need for adiabatic cooling, and therefore increase the efficiency of air-cooled solutions. This can be especially helpful for data centers located in areas that may experience infrequent heat waves due to the effects of climate change, as those data centers can efficiently operate within a higher temperature range.
Maintaining flexibility in data center design
Data center power, cooling and hardware efficiency innovations are advancing all the time. To take advantage of future improvements, we have to ensure our data centers don’t get locked into doing things a certain way today. On-site power generation solutions that can only use a specific fuel are one example of this. As mentioned earlier, new fuels like green hydrogen are likely to become more readily available in the future, so it would be a mistake to deploy innovations that can’t be converted to take advantage of cleaner fuel sources.
As demand skyrockets, operators must also think about how they can adapt existing data centers to meet that demand. Updating existing facilities is sometimes the more sustainable option compared to building a new one. This is especially true given the embodied carbon found in existing data centers—the emissions driven by building the data center in the first place.
According to one Equinix estimate, the embodied carbon found in a data center is equivalent to three to four years of operational carbon. By adapting existing data centers instead of building new ones, operators may be able to avoid creating new embodied carbon in their data center footprint. This means that in some cases, the data center of the future may actually be the data center of the present.
That said, there are also embodied carbon costs involved with renovating an existing data center. For instance, walls and floors may need to be rebuilt, while electrical and cooling systems may need to be upgraded. Operators need to carefully consider the tradeoffs to determine when it makes sense to renovate an existing data center and when building a new one would be the more sustainable option.
There are many different resources that go into building servers and other data center equipment. In many cases, these resources are at risk of supply shortages. Despite this, most used data center equipment isn’t remarketed or recycled.
To meet their sustainability goals, data center operators need to change this. Creating a circular economy for data center equipment, where today’s waste material becomes tomorrow’s raw material, will be essential for using natural resources wisely in the digital infrastructure industry.
Learn the Equinix approach to sustainability
This blog provides just a brief look at the many complicated issues data center operators need to account for in order to meet their own sustainability goals and those of their customers. It’s going to take a lot of time, resources and effort to build the data center of the future, but failing to act is not an option.
To learn more about what’s involved with creating sustainable data centers—including actions we can take now and how we can plan strategically for the future—read the Equinix white paper The Data Center of the Future: Reaching Sustainability.