Guy Ruddock, VP operations at Colt Data Centre Services, discusses renewable energy in the data centre market to improve carbon emissions within the business world.

The industry has been talking about green issues for years now. Whether companies are green washing or sincerely dedicated, the issue is as prominent today as it ever was. In fact, with our customers we see more requests for proposals with direct questions on green issues than ever before. The questions range from general corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies to direct questions on energy efficiency and renewable energy.

At the moment, there are quite a few companies using renewable energy for their data centres in Europe but how much of it comes directly from renewable sources? In some cases, the carrier offers a commitment to increasing renewable sources, in some they commit to buying renewable sources but the power is fed directly from the grid. Can you be sure that it is actually renewable energy you are using? Can we really achieve this in Europe or do we need to branch out and find new, innovative ways to source renewable energy?

A study released last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) put forward an argument for a new electricity system for Europe and North Africa that could achieve complete independence from fossil fuels and run on 100% renewable power by 2050. This would be achieved through a ‘pan-continental super smart grid powered by solar farms in North Africa, hydro electric plants in Scandinavia and the European Alps, onshore and offshore wind farms in the Baltic and North Sea, marine energy, and biomass power facilities.” On top of this, The European Union is creating an ‘energy vision for Europe for the next four decades’, a roadmap to outline the options for a future, greener European energy supply. This plan was not considered by key decision makers until the end of 2011, which is a slow process.

Although it’s encouraging to see governments in the EU taking more initiative to promote greener energy sources, this potentially new system shows the complexity of providing Europe with 100% renewable energy. This complexity leads to delays and it’s my thinking that we need to do more for the needs we have today. The need for greener energy supplies is urgent, particularly with the rising costs of traditional fuels, a key driver for behavioural change in carbon reduction. Many companies have been looking at ways of sourcing more renewable energy. However, it can be costly and it is not always completely clear how the energy is sourced.

By all accounts, great strides have been made in Europe to drive energy use down. But still we need to think about the increasing price of power. So, what’s on offer to further this green effort?

Prospects for renewable energy in the UK are most notable in Scotland with an estimated potential of 36.5GW which could be generated by wind turbines and 7.5GW from tidal power. This works out as 25% of the estimated total capacity for the EU from both. The Scottish Parliament had a target of producing 17-18% of Scotland’s electricity from renewables by 2010, rising to 40% by 2020. Encouraging but nonetheless, this is still not 100% renewable.

In light of this, our attention has recently been drawn to Iceland to address this issue. In Iceland, truly 100% renewable energy can be achieved from dual sources – geothermal and hydroelectric. Verne Global’s data centre campus in Iceland is one that is strategically located so that customers can benefit from the region’s unique 100% dual sourced renewable energy. A modular data centre design has been used here to further optimise Iceland’s temperate climate to ensure that free air cooling is available 365 days a year. Operating this data centre is carbon-free, zero emissions and therefore extremely environmentally friendly. While not everyone wants to locate their data centre in Iceland, it’s encouraging to see an option like this coming to market.

With reliable, proven dual sourced renewable power, Iceland can demonstrate the effect of efficient renewable power. Price of energy there is extremely low and power companies are willing to offer long term power contracts, the likes of which are unheard of in Europe.

Renewable power or not, focus still remains on power efficient designs and operations. It makes sense to maximize the space you have and ensure it is running at peak efficiency. Implementing more innovative data centre designs such as modular builds is one way of achieving this. By building out data centre space only as required you can plan more effectively and operate closer to maximum load. Efficiency is measured through power usage effectiveness (PUE), knowledge of which is a critical starting point for running more environmentally friendly data centres. Unfortunately, PUE is not a mandatory industry standard at the moment for measuring power efficiencies, although it is widely recognised. While the measurement is often a source of debate in the industry, it still remains the most effective means of evaluating energy efficiency. What the industry really needs is an environmental impact measure that takes into account not only power use, but also power efficiency, water use and end of life recycling amongst others.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change recently published the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) Energy Efficiency Scheme performance league tables which has ranked companies according to their carbon emissions. While the programme is aimed at improving energy efficiency and cutting emissions in large public and private sector organisations, some believe there are alternative and more effective ways of doing this.

The issue with the CRC, which was introduced in 2010 with its allowance sales coming into effect in 2012, is that it doesn’t address key challenges at the heart of the energy problem including, the role of data centre outsourcers, increasing power costs, and the benefits of renewable and sustainable power resources in addition to heat reuse and water use.

Earlier this year, the US Department of Energy (DoE) issued recommendations for measuring and publishing energy efficiency in Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) for all data centres with the aim of delivering a consistent and repeatable measurement strategy that allows data centre operators to monitor and improve the energy efficiency of their facilities. The DoE has openly recognised how effective PUE is, but the question remains as to which measurement should be used in the UK as at the moment we have the option of an easily manipulated measurement or a blanket taxation methodology.

It can be seen that a reliable, dual sourced 100% renewably powered data centre cannot be achieved in the rest of Europe at the moment and isn’t forecast to until at least 2050. This delay will most certainly continue to have a detrimental effect on the environment. With continued demand from organisations for renewable power, supply will catch up, hopefully sooner rather than later. In the meantime, more needs to be done with industry measurements to promote consistently lower energy usage across all industries. For Data Centres, implementing environmental impact measurements would be ideal but failing that, mandatory PUE measurements against an agreed standard would help address this as it’s already a de facto standard for the industry. This ethos is at the very heart of new innovations in data centre design and data centre users are starting to look elsewhere on the map too. The Verne Global campus in Iceland is a good example of how companies can achieve green aspirations today, not in 10 to 20 years’ time and it demonstrates the key to achieving renewable energy in the future is more exploration of technological advancements and regions in the world where natural resources can be put to good use.