Pricing sustainability into data centre site selection

By i3 Solutions
The team at i3 Solutions discusses the balancing act between energy, site selection and price when building a more sustainable data centre.


There was never actually a time when considerations for a new data centre location didn’t extend beyond the availability of cheap land, abundant power and connectivity. Site selection has always been more nuanced than that. 

But the list of considerations has grown in recent years, and it is often especially complex when viewed through the lens of sustainability, and the requirement to minimise or completely remove greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

Cushman and Wakefield’s 2021 Global Data Centre Market Comparison reports that the current development pipeline for 48 global data centre markets is 2.8 GW. The report provides weighted market criteria ranging from real estate and physical considerations (you don’t want to build on a flood plain), government incentives and political stability to sustainability and access to cheap power. 

“As large corporations and local governments pursue their own sustainability goals, data centres will be required to follow suit to meet future regulatory concerns and obtain further business. Those facilities that maintain a low power usage effectiveness (PUE), use water sparingly and utilize renewable energy, will benefit both in cost savings and partners,” it says. 

Clearly, new build developments will continue at pace but, from a sustainability perspective, there is also the consideration of whether a new build data centre is always the right way to go. 

As i3 Solutions Group paper “Infrastructure Sustainability Options and Revenue Opportunities for Data Centres” says; “Developed countries tend to have a substantial stock of legacy data centres or buildings predisposed to conversion to a data centre. Such countries should, in the first instance, assess the sustainability benefit of reduced embodied energy arising from building reuse when compared to constructing a new building.” 

So, whether redeveloping, modernising, or building new, energy sustainability is at or near the top of many agendas. Proximity of sustainable power or alternative low carbon energy sources, regulatory requirements around net zero carbon are specific national and state-related conditions. These will substantially impact location choices, especially in relation to the selection of appropriate low-carbon power technologies. 

There are of course many local variations in resource availability, legislation, and geography.

“From a sustainability perspective, the local Grid Emission Factor (GEF) will influence decision-making. This is because the carbon footprint of the selected generation or energy storage technologies must contribute to a net reduction in GHGs based on the individual country or state carbon footprint and all other SPIs,” says i3 Solutions Group.

Looking at the power basics, questions must be asked about national energy transition plans for power generation, grid modernisation and the availability of fuels such as natural gas, biogas or hydrogen. Although in some geographies easy access to hydroelectricity may simplify choices, not all data centres will sit next to hydro power stations. 

Sustainability questions pertaining to data centre locations are many and varied. 

On the generation side, developers and operators will need visibility on the proportion of curtailed energy likely to be due to the adoption of renewables. On the tax and cost front, will there be additional tariffs as the energy mix changes? 

In terms of distribution, continuous access to stable grid power must be viewed in the context of grid modernisation and restructure. The question of how stable is the grid today now becomes how stable will it be in the future? 

Territories have differing approaches to local power generation. At your chosen location, are there likely to be opportunities for power exports back to grid as a potential revenue opportunity for data centres operators?  Or will this be constrained by local rules about demand side response (DSR) for feeding power back to the grid? 

This has implications for investment in power infrastructure and new power chain designs within the data centre. Could the new low-cost carbon energy technologies, such as fuel cells, be offset against revenues realised through the generation and selling of zero carbon spare capacity energy?   

Choosing natural gas reciprocating engines for data centre primary and standby power? 

How will the access to gas pipelines impact data centre power generation infrastructure decisions? Where access to gas is freely available, could the use of gas engines help reduce opex, as operators avoid peak tariffs for energy coming from renewables?

As demand for data centre infrastructure continues to surge, every stakeholder from initial investors to end-users will demand sustainability and low or no-carbon operations. They will simply ask: “Where is your sustainable power coming from?”

It is up to us in the data centre community to find the energy to meet this challenge. 

As a response, i3 Solutions Group and EYP Mission Critical Facilities (EYP MCF) are collaborating on greenhouse gas (GHG) abatement. The two companies have published a joint list of white papers in preparation, that taken together will provide a detailed technical analysis for data centre operators moving towards carbon net-zero operations. 


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