How to Reduce the Effects of Data Centers on the Environment
How to Reduce the Effects of Data Centers on the Environment
Illustration: © IoT For All

With the amount of data humans transfer and store, it’s no wonder data centers require a lot of energy to operate. These massive warehouses full of hardware often rely on fossil fuels to keep them running 24/7— few industries function in such a continuous capacity.

Numerous sectors and lifestyles require data centers to function without outages, making them one of the most resource-intensive structures in tech. How can corporations make adjustments to minimize environmental impact but maintain the integrity of their data storage and accessibility?

Numerous sectors and lifestyles require data centers to function without outages, making them one of the most resource-intensive structures in tech.

-Zac Amos

The Environmental Impact of Data Centers

With the rise of cryptocurrency mining, remote work video conferencing, and Metaverse exploration, data center capabilities must rise alongside increasing personal and technological demands. However, this means data centers worldwide could expend more power than entire nations in terawatts, including Nigeria and Argentina.

Though everyone using the internet or cloud services contributes to the data center energy expenditure, the most prominent players are Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Alibaba. These businesses allocate data to these outside centers to relieve the burdens from on-site locations.

Though some companies share data centers, it doesn’t alleviate energy and environmental concerns. Companies are also switching to cloud providers — a greener alternative — yet still rely on immense data centers to keep them operational.

Data centers contribute over 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy usage. Though this doesn’t appear to be much, its rapid rate of acceleration will quickly become unsustainable unless Big Tech companies reimagine the traditional data center for ones retrofitted with energy-efficient, sustainable technologies and figure out how to reduce the environmental impact of data centers.

The Modular Influence

Modular data centers are one example of how the construction process can simplify and streamline to meet greener responsibilities. Prefabricated modular data centers (PMDCs) consider the supply chain, reducing materials and resources used while manufacturing data centers and their tech. It also minimizes labor and assembly time because of streamlined processes.

PMDCs make data centers more efficient, upgradable, and scalable to bandwidth stressors and product manipulation. Plus, when assembly lines use similar parts to create everything, it allows for simplified recycling and reuse in future data centers.

The technology housed in old data centers is likely outdated — for example, using hard disk drives instead of solid-state drives. Antiquated parts require additional resources to power, upkeep, and repair. Taking time to replace old tech will be a large upfront investment with a significant long-term payoff. 

Innovations like PMDCs allow data centers to adapt to a more eco-friendly era and inspire other companies to look inside the data center for process discovery improvements. Low-carbon alternatives exist in data center construction and PMDCs illuminate more issues surrounding traditional data centers that make them unsustainable.

With all the heat hardware emits, cooling the warehouses requires immense energy output. Liquid cooling and Internet of Things sensor technology provide avenues to regulate temperature more efficiently, especially in colocation data centers.

Additionally, modular data centers highlight the power problem. Because data centers run continuously, it isn’t easy to understand if all power usage is necessary. Modular solutions inspire companies to know what they’re paying for regarding energy use and seek solutions that allow them to customize how much to invest. Companies could consider on-demand or adaptive energy use, adjusting to customers’ needs using smart monitoring systems.

The Varied Investments

Data center constructors have an apparent option to switch to renewable energy sources. However, because of the severity data center’s environmental impact, there are higher expectations. Big Tech isn’t just responsible for making the switch — they’re responsible for investing, producing, and researching renewable energy to compensate for the damage they’ve already caused.

Companies can also invest by considering the environment before building new data centers. Businesses may consider retrofitting old buildings or using pre-constructed materials that are easy to transport and assemble in areas closer to headquarters. Choices like this reduce maintenance costs, travel time, and resource intensity by not building from nothing. Plus, investing in specific land could let companies optimize for wind, geothermal, or hydropower usage.

However, organizations and individuals have another investment responsibility — advocacy. Governmental awareness of data center impact is becoming more noticeable. Regulations aren’t solidified enough for reliable, evidence-based environmental standards to become the norm. To prevent governmental bodies from delaying the pertinent issue, companies and individuals can contact representatives, instill corporate responsibility initiatives and incite public discourse surrounding the impact of data centers.

Making Data Centers More Sustainable

For now, data centers remain an inarguable staple in the digital world. Workers require them for their livelihoods and businesses depend on them for storing secure information. However, the industry has to shift to minimize resource depletion, energy usage, and environmental damage for long-term sustainability. Numerous options exist for companies and individuals to reduce the environmental impact of data centers, but governments and Big Tech companies can start making the most prominent mark.

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