Chasing Net Zero In The Zettabyte Era
Investments in data centres are booming, but the challenge is how to keep these complex buildings cool and energy efficient.
By Bernie Devine, Regional Director, Yardi Systems
Surging internet usage and smartphone adoption, rampant social media, e-gaming and video streaming, an uptick of next-generation big data, smart cities and Internet of Things applications… all this (and more) is fuelling demand for data centres across the world.
But can the real estate sector keep up the pace, both from a cost and, more importantly, from a climate mitigation perspective?
Gartner predicts global data centre infrastructure will reach $200 billion in 2021, an increase of 6% from 2020. JLL estimates the hosting, storage, and cloud computing market across the Asia Pacific region will grow by more than 150% in just two years.
Everyone from the tech titans to emerging players is looking to the Asia Pacific to meet that demand. In a market entering a new cycle of growth, there are enormous opportunities ahead.
Sure, the hurdles to investment remain high. Costs can be eye-watering – roughly the same price as a hospital in square metre terms. Complex management can make scale and profitability a challenge. And a blistering rate of technological change can make obsolescence an ongoing headache. But these challenges are not insurmountable when the weight of capital is so vast.
An even bigger challenge is responding and adapting to climate change in an era of exponential data growth. How do data centre operators chase net zero in the zettabyte era?
Building For Bytes
We are generating 500 million tweets, 294 billion emails, four million gigabytes of Facebook data, 65 billion WhatsApp messages and 720,000 hours of YouTube content each and every day, according to the World Economic Forum.
All that data – which is expected to grow to 175 zettabytes by 2025 – needs to be stored somewhere. One zettabyte of coins, stacked one on the other, would reach the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, 600 times.
The consequences of all that data? A supersized carbon footprint. The International Energy Agency says data centres are currently responsible for one per cent of global electricity. But with big data exploding, this figure is expected to rise.
We are seeing significant investment in advanced water-cooling technology, renewable energy and green power purchase agreements, for example. But I echo the sentiments of Oliver Jones, CEO of Chayora, who recently opened one of the world’s largest data centres in Tianjin. He says: “The best kilowatt is the kilowatt you never use.”
A large proportion of data centre power is used for cooling. While free air cooling is much cheaper and less carbon-intensive than mechanical cooling, many key markets in the Asia Pacific are tropical environments with hot temperatures which limit the use of free cooling. It may seem to make more sense to build a data centre in Stockholm than in Singapore. But data sovereignty laws, latency demand and logistics all drive location decisions.
Many of the sector’s leaders are looking to renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and biofuels, and the solutions are becoming increasingly technologically advanced.
For example, Barcelona’s supercomputer is housed in the 1940s Torre Girona Chapel. Google transformed an abandoned paper mill in Hamina, Finland, into a data centre cooled entirely by seawater. Green Mountain’s facility in Stavanger, Norway, is buried deep underground within a cold war-era ammunition store.
Despite the potential for vast roof space, few data centres are fully solar-powered. They may be feasible in sunny countries with lots of space – notably Australia and Spain – but also require vast roof space. Hydro is emerging as the preferred solution in many parts of the world because the sun doesn’t need to shine or the wind blow.
A lot of the data centre leaders are investing in smart design and fine spray technology that minimises water consumption. They are developing closed-loop systems that recycle the water required for cooling. Some tenants now include WUE – Water Usage Effectiveness – requirements in their tenders, alongside PUE, or Power Usage Effectiveness.
Then there’s another side to the sustainability story. Keeping the rows of powerful computers inside a data centre from overheating requires up to 19 million litres of water a day – the same amount of water as a city of as many as 50,000 people.
Water may be cheaper than electricity – for now. There may not be a commercial driver to save water in many parts of the world. But more than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Expect the leaders to get serious about sustainable water, or the future cost may be much higher than bigger water bills.
Smart And Sustainable?
Meeting the challenges of net-zero energy and water in the zettabyte era won’t be easy.
We expect to see further layers of complexity in administration and accountancy, which will require far more superior back-end systems than business-as-usual. The days of spreadsheet reporting are well and truly behind us.
The data centre sector is at a crossroads beset with obstacles, but the opportunities are also enormous. The players who are most agile and flexible – with a laser focus on net-zero – are those poised to capitalise in the zettabyte era.
About the author
Bernie Devine, Yardi’s Regional Director for Asia Pacific, has spent more than three decades working at the intersection of technology and real estate. Bernie helps real estate clients grow their operations, enhance efficiencies and gain insights into the power of data. He has led large-scale technology projects and supported proptech start-ups across Australia, the USA, the Middle East, Asia and Europe.