Human life on earth is currently unsustainable due to excessive consumption and emissions, with time running out to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

Lifecycle assessment is a methodology that measures the environmental impact of a system over its entire lifecycle – from raw material extraction, production and manufacturing, to the use phase, end-of-life and final disposal. It includes human health, ecosystem quality, resource depletion and climate change.

Smoke from a coal power plant
– Thinkstock Ungnoikalookjeab

Are you ignoring material impact?

Most data centers measure their energy efficiency and electricity usage during operation, but ignore the production, transportation and disposal of the materials, components and systems used.

In 2015, Beth Whitehead and Amip Shah assessed the lifecycle of a UK data center. A summary of their work, The business case for sustainability in data centers is published on DatacenterDynamics.

The main contributors to total environmental impact are energy consumption, energy mix (electricity source) and embodied impact of IT and mechanical and electrical (M&E) systems.

For a UK facility using free cooling with a three-year server refresh rate, the operational impact is four times that of the embodied impact, Whitehead found.

The embodied impact of equipment  is hundreds of times that of the building, but LEED ignores it

But a similar facility located in Sweden could achieve an operational impact of half its embodied impact, by using more servers and reducing energy consumption through IT consolidation and virtualization.

IT equipment is the largest energy consumer in most data centers, and if this is reduced it has a cascade effect on M&E energy consumption.

For most existing data centers, cooling is the second-largest energy consumer. The largest part of this is from the refrigeration compressors, followed by fans and UPS losses.

New facilities designed for low energy consumption in favorable climates can achieve a PUE of around 1.2 by using free cooling to minimize refrigeration requirements. This can be facilitated by increasing temperature set points and air management.

Renewable energy sources produce lower carbon emissions than fossil fuels, and have positive branding and corporate social responsibility benefits.

Embodied impact is large

Whitehead and Shah showed that the embodied impact of the IT equipment is double that of the M&E equipment, and both together are many hundreds of times that of the building itself. Despite this, building assessments such as LEED and BREEAM do not consider the embodied impact of IT and M&E equipment.

The main embodied impact from IT equipment stems from the disposal of waste products from the manufacture of components; in particular, toxic sulphidic tailings. Design decisions such as zero refrigeration and avoiding excessive redundancy can reduce embodied impact.

The full embodied impact of data center equipment and materials is still largely unknown, but organizations can measure it with lifecycle assessment. Environmental leadership could increase brand value, reduce total cost of ownership and increase profitability.

Beth Whitehead and Sophia Flucker contributed to this article contributed by data center consultancy Operational Intelligence Ltd