With the rapid advance of digital technology, there has been a huge rise in the growth and construction of data centres around the globe. These facilities are known to consume large amounts of energy due to the high amount of computing power required to operate servers and networking equipment, as well as the need to keep their servers cool.
Data centres are reported to be responsible for around 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with data centres and data transmission networks underpinning digitalisation accounting for around 330Mt CO₂ equivalent in 2020 alone.
Although efforts have been made to reduce these centres’ operational carbon emissions, their significant embodied carbon emissions have gone under the radar — until now.
In light of this, engineering and consulting firm Introba released Hidden Emissions of the Cloud: Examining Embodied Carbon and Cost Impacts of Data Center Cooling Technologies. The report reveals that the embodied carbon of data centre buildings is much higher than a typical commercial office building and explains why companies need to take steps now to address that.
Here, Kanika Sharma, Associate Principal of Introba’s sustainability consulting team, shares her standout findings of the report, what she hopes it will achieve and how the future of the data centre industry will look in light of its findings.
Sharma leads her team on technical excellence and innovative carbon solutions for the built environment, focusing extensively on embodied carbon. With her work in this field spanning from wholistic building life-cycle analysis to specific mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems embodied carbon studies to cutting-edge analysis and research in the embodied carbon attributed to data centres, she has seen first-hand this area of study grow, with her work growing as a result.
In your own words, what is Hidden Emissions of the Cloud: Examining Embodied Carbon and Cost Impacts of Data Center Cooling Technologies and what does it show?
The Hidden Emissions study seeks to shine a spotlight on the embodied carbon impacts of both traditional and innovative data centre cooling techniques. While the operational carbon impacts of these technologies are widely studied, there is still a lack of knowledge on their embodied carbon impacts – that is what we work to uncover in our study.
We started our study by conceptualising a hypothetical 18,580sq m (200,000 sq ft) data centre building in Portland, Oregon. We then reviewed various mechanical cooling technologies typically found in data centres and selected three distinct options to study across traditional, advanced and emerging cooling technology categories. These selected technologies include traditional air-cooled chillers, advanced evaporative cooling and emerging immersion cooling. Once these study parameters were set, we analysed the embodied carbon of each of these cooling options.
Our research showed that during a data centre’s 60-year life cycle, more than 90% of the cumulative embodied carbon emissions can be attributed to mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) equipment, of which more than 95% comes from just ten pieces of mechanical and electrical equipment. This held true across all three of the cooling technologies we studied. We also found that while upfront embodied carbon emissions are significant, the majority of these emissions are attributed to the maintenance, repair and replacement of the equipment over the building’s lifetime.
What are some of the standout findings of the report?
- More than 90% of the embodied carbon emissions of a data centre are associated with MEP equipment; non-MEP components contribute only 7% to 10%.
- In excess of 97% of the MEP emissions come from 10 pieces of MEP equipment.
- Of the three mechanical cooling technologies studied — air cooled chillers, evaporative cooling, and immersion cooling — immersion cooling has the lowest embodied carbon and evaporative cooling has the highest.
- Immersion cooling has the lowest embodied carbon but the highest capital cost per megawatt (MW) at roughly US$7.8 million per MW.
- More than 99% of the MEP emissions come from mechanical and electrical components. Both plumbing and fire protection equipment emissions contribute less than 1%.
Are there any findings in the report that shocked you, or did the opposite? Can you give a reason why?
Even though upfront embodied carbon emissions for MEP equipment in data centres are significant, most of the emissions we calculated are actually attributed to repetitive equipment maintenance including replacement and repair. It was a bit shocking to see just how much replacement and repair is needed for these systems over the life of the building, which our study set at 60 years. As a result of these findings, we recommend selecting durable equipment in the first place, ensuring it is maintained properly and promptly repairing parts before they need to be replaced. These simple actions can have a significant impact on reducing the equipment’s overall embodied carbon emissions.
What did not shock me was the fact that non-MEP emissions were much lower than the MEP emissions. As most of the focus of the industry today is on designing low-carbon structural systems and sourcing low-carbon structural materials, these emissions are much easier to quantify and reduce through existing technologies, for example, by using LCA software tools and building with low-carbon concrete. Therefore, we need to pivot to thinking about embodied carbon holistically and include non-structural materials, products, and equipment in the analysis.
What do you hope the report will achieve now it has been published?
The data centre market is at the onset of a period of rapid growth, driven by the inevitable march of digital transformation and the adoption of innovative technologies. Leveraging that momentum, this industry can spearhead the transition toward a more environmentally responsible and resilient digital infrastructure ecosystem by systematically addressing embodied carbon concerns within MEP systems. We hope that the research findings from our study spark conversations about and action on the critical importance of scrutinising design considerations and material choices, especially regarding MEP system design. More specifically, we call on suppliers and manufactures to commit to enhanced data transparency, enabling informed strategic design decisions. And we hope that owners, designers and consultants will realise their responsibility for championing data transparency by mandating that manufacturers provide comprehensive information regarding the embodied carbon of their products. If these hopes are realised, we not only mitigate the environmental footprint of the data centres themselves, but also set in motion positive effects across all sectors that rely on digital infrastructure for their services.
How do you feel the future of the data centre industry will look in light of this report?
It’s no secret that the data centre industry is poised for a transformative shift. We believe that several of the key insights from our study will be reflected in the future of the data centre industry, including:
- Increased focus on MEP Embodied Carbon: This report highlights the significance of MEP embodied carbon in data centres, shedding light on the magnitude of emissions associated with the equipment — and associated maintenance thereof — that helps to power these buildings and the servers they house. Armed with the evidence of MEP equipment impact, we hope the industry will begin to pivot its focus from the established study and understanding of the embodied carbon of structure/enclosure to that of the equipment within the buildings.
- Technological innovation: The study outlines the potential for reducing embodied carbon through the selection and design of mechanical systems. As ever, we believe more knowledge will lead to further innovation in cooling technologies — and other MEP systems — as the industry seeks solutions that combat both operational and embodied carbon emissions.
- Transparency and accountability: The call for increased transparency in disclosing carbon impacts of MEP equipment is likely to push manufacturers and suppliers to provide more widely available life cycle information on MEP materials. This emphasis on transparency could — and in our opinion, should — lead to industry-wide standards for reporting and assessing carbon impacts and as a result make MEP embodied carbon assessments routine rather than one-off.
- Rethinking design decisions and operational practices: With MEP equipment identified as a major contributor to data centre embodied carbon, future data centre designs may prioritise selecting less carbon-intensive equipment. Designers may also focus on solutions that reduce the need for frequent maintenance and replacement, contributing to long-term sustainability goals. Finally, facility management could implement operational policies and practices to ensure proper maintenance of equipment to minimise the need for replacement and repair.
- Regulatory considerations: We are already seeing regulatory oversight in respect to structural embodied carbon requirements throughout the US. As the embodied carbon of data centres becomes a more central concern, regulatory bodies may develop or enhance guidelines related to this topic given the exponential growth we are expecting in the industry. This could influence industry standards and encourage a more concerted effort towards embodied carbon practices.
- Industry collaboration: The collaborative nature of the study, involving experts from various fields, could inspire more collaborative efforts within the industry. Future data centre projects may involve interdisciplinary teams to address carbon challenges comprehensively.
- Educational initiatives: This report's insights could prompt educational initiatives around embodied carbon, specifically focused on MEP equipment, within the data centre industry. Professionals in the industry may seek to equip their experts with the knowledge and skills needed to implement similar studies to find impactful solutions.
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