The green movement has been slow to come to the data center industry—not surprising for facilities that are believed to make up to 2 percent of the nation’s total power consumption,—but now many major data center owners and developers have embraced sustainability as a new goal.
A data center can suck up as much energy as a small town, according to officials with the U.S. Green Building Council. A recent study by International Data Corp., a research firm that focuses on information technology companies, reported that power costs make up about one quarter of a data center’s budget. It’s no wonder that powerhouse technology firms have incorporated energy-efficient measures into their recent new data centers, with examples including Apple’s new LEED Platinum-certified facility in Maiden, N.C. and Facebook’s LEED Gold-certified data center in Prineville, Ore.
Aaron Binkley, director of sustainability for data center developer Digital Realty, says 45 of his firm’s new properties are LEED-certified. Going green is one of this year’s top trends for the industry, he says. “When you have an industry that basically uses 140 billion kilowatts of power, basically 50 coal plants worth, trying to be energy efficient is top of your mind,” Binkley notes.
Digital Realty is one of the leaders in sustainable practices. The company uses about 22 percent of renewable fuel at its centers, with a goal to one day bring that figure to 100 percent. The firm also participates in the Better Buildings Challenge, a Department of Energy-led initiative to improve energy efficiency at data centers by 20 percent over the next five years.
Data center owners are trying to figure out the best ways to make these buildings, which are designed to consume a lot of energy, as efficient as possible. Most of the energy use by data centers today comes from the older, mid-sized facilities. For these existing properties, the first thing to do is to make changes that improve airflow, and then to automate as much as possible, says Binkley. “If something needs to be replaced, find the most efficient alternative,” he notes.
New and shiny
Improving efficiency is somewhat easier when it comes to new construction, as many green features can be built in. Digital Realty recently unveiled a 200-yard-long data facility for Rackspace near London that will use 'indirect outside air' cooling technology, meaning overhead energy required to operate the data center has been cut by almost 80 percent. Also, the center uses a rainwater harvesting system to halt freshwater waste. The company’s $168 million Profile Park data center in Dublin, which opened last year, has won awards for efficiency due to its air-based cooling system.
Another firm, QTS Realty Trust Inc., recently announced that its new data center in Fort Worth, Texas has earned LEED Gold certification. The property, a former 700,000-sq.-ft. semiconductor manufacturing facility, uses water reduction, environmentally-friendly building materials, and air- and water-cooled chillers housed in a central utility building to improve efficiency, according to Matt Tyndall, executive vice president of property development for the company.
Tyndall says being efficient is not only essential for saving money, it’s important for the firm’s responsibility to the community.
“Power and cooling efficiencies have quick return on investment on cost of solution, plus the lower operating costs as a result of more efficient solutions,” he notes. “While virtualization or consolidation will help offset a massive growth in data, it's a fact that data center operations require a lot of resources. It's in our best interest to be good stewards of the resources we use.”
Digital Realty’s Binkley says owners started to really get into green practices about five years ago, and tenants have also caught on, asking for the most efficient buildings.
“Clean energy is a top concern for our customers,” he says. “I would say 100 percent of them say lower operating expenses are important.”
However, a recent survey shows there are data center end users out there that don’t take being environmentally friendly too seriously yet. Joe Kozlowicz, a data marketing specialist with Green House Data, recently released an industry survey that shows only 10 percent of data center end users consider green practices when evaluating a service provider. Only about one third of the 166 professionals surveyed said they thought environmental impact is important when considering which data centers to buy services from.
“Organizations are looking to data center providers to deliver cost savings and reliability,” Kozlowicz said in his report. “If energy efficiency is how they do it, great. But the carbon footprint of a service provider is pretty low on the priority scale.”
Tyndall, however, disagrees.
“We believe that the data center industry has not only caught on, but it's passing where the office or retail industry is,” Tyndall says. “Information technology is beginning to drive business decisions and the massive growth doesn't see sustainability as a ‘nice to have.’ Rather, they see it as a necessity to survive.”