Although sustainability within the data center industry has been steadily climbing the priority ladder over the last few years, decarbonization – one of the key ways to actually achieve it – is a fairly nascent topic.

Perhaps this is testament to the greenwashing currently rife across the sector, or maybe it’s simply down to a lack of education. But what we do know, is an all talk no (real) action approach won’t get us anywhere.

Decarbonization quite literally means the reduction in carbon emissions, usually in relation to a business, or in this case, a data center, which are businesses unto themselves.

Unfortunately for data center operators, many resting on their laurels, decarbonization won’t just happen, and will require a multifaceted, concerted effort if they want to reap the rewards decarbonization will ultimately bring to the bottom line.

“Decarbonization requires businesses to effectively account for the emissions it takes to run their operations,” says Trevor Joelson, key account decarbonization program lead at Trane. “It’s then about coming up with a plan to actually reduce those emissions.”

Why now?

In corporate America, in particular, over the last 12 to 18 months, the buzz surrounding decarbonization has coincided with the institutional investment community deeming it a priority alongside the broader topic of ESG (environmental, social and governance). In other words, the money has finally found it, and big money equals big interest.

“Within ESG you have environmental sustainability, and these large institutional investors are looking at companies and they’re looking at data center operators,” says Joelson.

Investors want to know what a data center’s plan is for environmental sustainability. This will not only help them gauge the health of the business today, but will act as an indication of what they can expect from it in the future so they can make prudent investments.

Of course, due to an abundance of resources, hyperscale companies are currently leading the way when it comes to decarbonization. But this isn’t because they’re more environmentally conscious than the rest of us, it’s their customers in the driving seat.

Customer priorities shape the way an organization does business, so if hyperscale customers care about carbon accounting – a key component in the decarbonization of a data center – this gives operators a functional reason to care too, and to not only care, but take action.

“If we look at hyperscale operations in terms of carbon accounting, you have your scope one and scope two emissions which are those you are directly accountable for,” explains Joelson. “But then scope three emissions are the value stream both to and from your suppliers and to your customers.”

This has led customers (particularly those who are large users of a data center’s core services) to approach operators looking to understand the emissions that they are responsible for.

This is because, ultimately, they too will be accountable for said emissions within one of their own emissions scopes. Essentially, hyperscale customers want to be able to account for the emissions used as a result of contracting with these companies.

Following the leader

Although scope one and two emissions may be easier to ascertain and disclose, scope three emissions are by far the largest piece of the puzzle, accounting for up to 80 percent of a data center’s total emissions. With that being the case, it’s hard to believe that up until recently, scope three emissions remained largely undefined.

“Scope three has been this black box for a while that society just accepted as being undefined, so companies never really had to act. What’s changed recently is that industry leaders – some being the hyperscalers we referenced earlier – have become much more transparent about their scope three emissions. Enterprise data centers hosted in colocation (colo) and cloud need to take notice; even though it’s off site, you have to look at those emissions in scope three.”

This has resulted in other companies following suit, creating a kind of transparency snowball which is continuing to pick up speed.

A unique challenge

By way of example, if you took all the roof space of a data center and covered it in solar panels, this may seem like a substantial sustainability investment. However, because of the high energy environment that is a data center, this would be less than a drop in the ocean in terms of that facility’s overall energy consumption.

“A lot of the decarbonization of a data center does have to happen off-site with investment in large renewable energy developments,” says Joelson. “We’ve seen a lot of major operators go out and invest in things like virtual power purchase agreements (VPPAs).”

Joelson goes on to explain that due to the fact organizations shouldn’t lose sight of what’s behind the meter, i.e. their actual core energy consumption, VPPAs are not necessarily the way to go. Rather, investments should be made in energy efficiency and behind the meter type solutions.

That said, this doesn’t mean traditional off-site investments should be avoided entirely. While we won’t reach net zero with an exclusively on-site solution, at the same time, operators shouldn’t rely too heavily on an exclusively off-site strategy either, it’s about striking a workable balance between the two.

Out with the old

The exact formula for data center decarbonization largely depends on the facility in question. If a data center has yet to be constructed, this provides operators the opportunity to bake sustainable solutions into the build from design stage, selecting materials with less embedded carbon than those typically used in existing facilities, for example concrete.

“When you’re building new you can start from scratch and don’t have to worry about the retrofit implications,” says Miles Auvil, global vertical market leader for data centers, at Trane.

When building a new data center, the aim of the game is to build the most efficient facility possible. More often than not, this means designers are working with the latest – generally more environmentally friendly – technologies and materials to achieve the desired result.

Historically, existing facilities have utilized diesel generators as a source of backup power. But as the spotlight remains firmly on sustainability, there is now a strong desire for the industry to move away from diesel, to batteries as the generation source.

Recent technologies have made this possible, with hyperscale behemoth Google having applied battery energy storage as a complete replacement for diesel generators.

“We think this is a trend that is starting to pick up steam, specifically in the hyperscale environment. But we think it will trickle down to the colocation data center environment as well,” says Auvil.

Unfortunately, even with illustrious trailblazers like Google, human beings, particularly those running existing mission critical facilities, are inherently resistant to change.

“Within the built environment there’s a much more embedded human element to it. It’s a more emotional decision that’s being made, and there’s a ‘we’ve always done it this way, that’s just the way it is’ attitude at play,” says Joelson.

Facility operators need to be made comfortable with the fact different conditions can be implemented that will result in greater efficiency and a lower carbon footprint, without affecting their core business and resilience.

“To incite change within pre-existing facilities, you’re having to work in a live environment, so you risk downtime. And these customers have typically only ever taken very basic steps to address the lowest hanging fruit,” explains Auvil.

Companies that have been in operation for a while tend to focus on projects that will provide a high return on investment, with very low, simple paybacks. However, this approach causes them to leave behind a plethora of other attractive projects that may simply take longer to pay back.

“This is where we see a really good fit for Trane and our partners to come in and provide an investment vehicle to help tackle some of the projects these companies may not otherwise have the capital for.”

But how?

From an energy perspective, the HVAC side of a data center accounts for anywhere between 30 to 40 percent of a facility’s total operating costs, so this would be a sensible place to start.

“HVAC is a very attractive, large target to focus on and is obviously a big consuming category,” says Auvil. “All these devices require refrigerants, many of which have a high global warming potential.”

Customers focused on decarbonization need to account for these refrigerants, based on their aforementioned global warming potential (GWP), alongside any refrigerant leaks that need to be accounted for as ‘fugitive emissions’. For customers, these fall into their scope one category.

So, what can operators do?

“As a whole, the industry is moving towards better, less environmentally impactful refrigerants. We have customers that will come to us and base their equipment selection on the fact we’ve adopted a low GWP refrigerant before one of our competitors,” says Auvil.

And, of course, if you can reduce the number and volume of leaks, the lower refrigerant-based scope one emissions you will have. Fortunately, leak reduction is an area of business that doesn’t necessarily require capital upgrades to equipment.

This is because a lot of the time, HVAC within a data center is being controlled by a poorly programmed system, or a system that has been taken out of action altogether. Therefore controls, particularly within the built environment, are crucial to the entire decarb-equation.

Fortunately, the industry is now in a position where operators are able to add advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning to their control systems, creating better outcomes for their facilities.

Some of these add-ons may focus on energy efficiency and optimization, but will be refrigerant specific, to the point where an operator can see any variances within the system alerting them to a leaking refrigerant – without having to specifically monitor for leaking refrigerants.

“Traditionally, being able to monitor all assets separately might’ve presented a cost hurdle for customers. Now it can be embedded within a core machine learning/artificial intelligence type optimization solution, helping significantly reduce the scope one emissions that can be a huge weight on a customer’s carbon accounting,” says Joelson.

Outside of the facility itself, another important piece of the decarbonization puzzle is having an in-depth, real-time understanding of the electricity grid the data center is connected to. Ultimately, it’s this generation mix that will drive your emissions.

“Around machine learning and artificial intelligence, we’re seeing customers asking, ‘can we shift the operations of our individual facility or portfolio of facilities to respond to the generation mix on the electric grid?’

“For example, if a coal plant has to come on due to a particular variable, can you then shift to battery storage, or perhaps use your DCIM to shift the load somewhere else? It’s about that integration with the electrical grid that machine learning and artificial intelligence allows for,” says Joelson.

Where do I start?

The first logical step is to identify which solutions are available to you. This can be done with the help of industry partners who are not only established in decarbonization and sustainability, but also within mission critical environments (preferably data centers.)

“There’s a very specific knowledge base on both sides of the coin. Data centers are complex and a decarbonization expert alone may not realize the implications of the things they’re suggesting,” says Auvil.

And because there are so many different variables that go into effectively achieving decarbonization, rather than keeping partners siloed as might have been the case in the past, Trane advises ‘partnering your partners’, as a collaborative effort will ultimately help drive the greatest outcomes for your business.

Trane can put you in touch with a myriad of third-party investors that see the value in decarbonization and are willing to invest capital in your business and buildings to help you achieve it.

“This is a turn-key, silver-bullet opportunity for data center companies to bring in investors to drive decarbonization, while operators can remain focused on their core business,” says Joelson.

In other words, stick to what you know. If you are a data center operator, your focus should be exactly that. So, the secret to sustainable success? Seek professional advice, and delegate your decarbonization.

Need funding for your decarbonization project(s)? Trane can connect you with an investment firm with the available funds to deliver budget neutral (or better) emission reduction projects via equipment upgrades in your facility. Click here to find out more.