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The Data Centre Boom: Navigating Opportunities and Sustainability Challenges

CEC's Ann Wheeler, explores the reasons behind the data centre boom and the related challenges the world faces in its current campaign for climate change.

The UK, along with the rest of the globe, is currently witnessing a notable surge in the data centre industry, driven by the demand for digital services and cloud computing. This unprecedented growth has propelled data centres into the spotlight as critical infrastructure for supporting the modern digital economy. Several factors are fueling this boom which we will be exploring below.

Digital Transformation

The UK's digital economy continues to expand rapidly, with increasing demand for cloud computing, and data storage. This digital transformation is propelling the data centre industry to new heights as it caters to this growing digital demand.

Edge Computing

The emergence of edge computing has revolutionised data processing, demanding distributed data centres to facilitate low-latency applications and real-time processing at the network edge. In comparison to cloud computing, the new edge technology allows data to be accessed much quicker, through much smaller sites which are located closer to the source of generation. On the other hand, cloud computing provides scalability and centralised management of computing resources. This shift and utilisation of two different systems is driving the need for agile and resilient data centre configurations.

IoT and Big Data

The proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the explosion of 'big data' have unleashed an overflow of data that requires real-time collection, processing, and analysis. Data centres serve as the backbone for managing this data, enabling organisations to derive actionable insights.

E-Commerce and Online Services

The booming growth of e-commerce platforms, streaming services, social media, and online gaming has led to a huge surge in internet traffic. This clearly underlines the critical role of robust data centre configurations in ensuring seamless and efficient performance, and reliability for these digital services.

While the data centre boom presents significant opportunities for investment, innovation and job creation, it is certainly not without its challenges. Sustainability concerns loom large over the industry, requiring concerted efforts to mitigate its environmental impact. Some of the key sustainability challenges include:

1. Energy Consumption and Carbon Emissions

Data centres are large consumers of energy, resulting in significant carbon emissions. Despite making good strides in energy efficiency globally, the relentless demand for digital services continues to drive up energy consumption, highlighting environmental concerns. As such, many decision-makers around the world are implementing measures in order to overcome these issues, including limiting permits for data centres in residential areas, or requiring them to contribute renewable energy to the grid and reuse waste heat.

2. Heat Management

Efficient cooling is imperative to prevent IT equipment from overheating. However, traditional cooling systems often consume substantial amounts of energy. Finding sustainable cooling solutions, such as leveraging ambient air or water-based cooling technologies, is imperative to reduce energy consumption and environmental impact.

3. Water Usage

Data centre cooling systems rely heavily on water, placing strain on local water resources, which is currently worse than ever due to the data centre surge. Implementing water-efficient cooling technologies and exploring sustainable water practices, such as water recycling, are crucial steps to minimising water usage.

4. Urban Space and Land Use

Data centres require large amounts of land and urban space for construction and operation. Balancing the need for new data centres with environmental considerations, such as preserving green spaces and minimising ecological disruption, presents a formidable challenge. For example, in September 2022, the application of a 163,000 sqm data centre campus, to be known as 'West London Technology Park', was dismissed by the UK Secretary of State due to the size "significantly alter(ing) the character and appearance of the area."

5. Circular Economy and E-Waste Management

The rapid pace of technology innovation leads to significant electronic waste (e-waste). According to UNU reports, 53.6MT of e-waste was generated globally in 2019, showing a 21% rise in 5 years. Proper management and disposal of e-waste is imperative to reduce environmental pollution and promote a circular economy.

Amidst these challenges, however, this juncture in the data centre space presents a lot of optimism. The data centre industry now has an unprecedented opportunity to be the leading example for all large power users in paving the way towards a greener future. Through fostering collaboration among data centre operators, technology providers, policymakers and other stakeholders, data centres can drive the adoption of renewable energy, bolster sustainable practices and exemplify environmental stewardship.

Ann Wheeler, Director - Data Centres


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