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How can we keep vital data centres running and benefit from carbon savings?

Data centres and IT server rooms are now critical to the running of almost every sector in the UK, and the UK data centre market will reach a value of almost £6.5 billion by 2025.

More and more industries and processes are becoming digitised - from high-street shopping to manufacturing - and the truth is that this uses vast amounts of data.

On top of this, more employees have been working from home since the beginning of the pandemic, and businesses rely on servers and databases in order to keep employees connected to colleagues and clients.

All of this requires data centres to keep running effectively 27/4 – and critically, they need to stay cool and operate at full capacity. This uses up a lot of energy, and means data centres, and on-premise IT rooms, can be very energy intensive. In fact, there are 63.4 million square feet of data centre space globally, and it was estimated in 2019 that data centres consume 2.89TWh of power per year.  

As a result of this energy use, data centres must reduce the amount of energy they use in order to support the UK’s goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Fortunately, reusing heat is an effective way to reduce energy use. This this article will look into how air conditioning can help data centre operators and IT managers make a difference to the energy usage of their buildings.

The recovered heat from large data centres can also potentially be used more widely

James Smurthwaite James Smurthwaite Business Development Manager

Data centres are already committing to energy-efficiency 

There is already a Climate Change Agreement (CCA) that data centres have committed to. This is an agreement negotiated with the government, offered to energy-intensive industries, and participants commit to energy efficiency targets which are specific to that industry in return for a reduction in, or exclusion from, paying some carbon-related taxes.

In 2020, the government announced earlier this year that the current agreements in place would be extended until 2025. This means that data centres will continue to have their carbon emissions and energy use measured against agreed targets for the next five years.

There is a potential for data centres to make many thousands of pounds of annual savings with these carbon-related taxes – so it’s cost effective for businesses to commit to reducing carbon emissions too.

UK data centres have much to gain by cutting costs

The potential cost savings associated with increasing energy efficiency are particularly significant in the UK. UK data centres face higher energy costs than many other parts of the world, and because the pandemic has increased demand for data centres, the global marketplace has become more competitive than ever.

Because data centres are often remote from the businesses they support, the geographical location of a client is often not a deciding factor in selecting which data centre is chosen. Instead, the cost savings it can bring and its energy efficiency standards have become bigger priorities for customers to weigh up.

As a result, there is a compelling commercial benefit to data centres owners and operators if they prioritise making as many energy reductions as possible. This is where air conditioning comes in, as it can provide a real opportunity to offer energy efficient cooling for spaces where keeping things cool is business critical.

Reduce energy by reusing heat

On top of the commitments already made to increasing energy efficiency, UK data centres must now look at what else can be done – with a focus on how data centres are managed and operated.

By nature, data centres and IT rooms produce large amounts of heat as a by-product of cooling. This heat is often simply expelled from the building, but there is technology already available which can re-use this heat effectively.

Heat recovery captures heat rejected from a cooling system and applies it to other areas of building services. This could be space or water heating, and it makes it possible to save large amounts of energy while reducing long-term operational costs.

In a building or room which ejects large amounts of heat, being able to use that energy elsewhere has enormous potential.

Making use of recovered heat

In buildings where an IT cooling room operates onsite, the heat extracted from that room can be provided to other occupied spaces like offices, where heating is required to keep employees comfortable.  It can also help boost the temperature of hot water, and reduce the load on boilers.

The recovered heat from large data centres can also potentially be used more widely. Through district heating networks, waste heat from one data centre can be delivered to other nearby buildings.

This is already a well-used model in Scandinavia, and data centres are designed to be able to make use of the local district heating network. Stockholm in particular is a pioneer in the use of waste heat, with more than 30 data centres already located there, which feed their waste heat into the 2,800-kilometer district heating network.

There is also an opportunity for data centres to move away from gas boilers altogether and make use of clean electricity. For example, there are already chillers available which offer simultaneous heating and remove the need for a gas connection all together.

Finally, a dedicated heat recovery heat pump could also be a viable solution. Water-source heat pumps get their energy from condensed water or return chiller water, and are an excellent solution for large, water-cooled chiller applications.

Data centres play a very important role in keeping businesses across all sectors in the UK running effectively. Technology is now an integral part of our lives and how we work, so data centres will likely only becoming more critical.

At the same time, they are significant energy users, and have a responsibility to find more energy efficient, sustainable ways of cooling and heating.

James Smurthwaite, Business Development Manager