Ever since the first Industrial Revolution, technology-driven advances in large-scale operations have elevated our living standards and provided society with greater opportunities. But each of these advances has come with unintended consequences, including impacts to our carbon footprint.

At its core, sustainability requires us to examine the long-term impacts and unintended consequences of our decisions today and use these as criteria to make better decisions in the future.

Sustainability has become a board-level imperative for all companies in all industries, but considering that data center expansion and energy consumption has outpaced virtually every sector in the economy, we must also lead efforts to adapt, innovate, and align with sustainability goals.

As climate concerns evolve, carbon footprints, measurement and metrics, power usage, and renewable integration are all front and center.

A variety of green energy choices

Starting at the power source seems an obvious place to begin, and there are many revolutionary new technologies being researched.

We have all seen the many recent global trends to utilize renewable resources. There has been massive research spend on revolutionary new technologies at the source of power: inputs, or what the EPA, vis-à-vis emissions standards, refers to as Scope 1 and 2.

Both alternative fuels (green diesel, hydrogen, utility-scale battery arrays) and power sources (wind, solar, even wave motion) are included here and have been the focus of advances in the last few years.

The depth of research, development, and testing in this space is breathtaking. From Microsoft’s progress with hydrogen to Google’s pioneering work with batteries, we learn of revolutionary advances seemingly monthly.

The best thing about sustainability is that it isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ and there isn’t just one change we can implement. Our planet offers a diverse range of energy sources which can coexist to jointly address the threat of climate change.

The green energy transition is ultimately a collective development in which a wide range of societal and industry interests must be considered to strike a balance between sustainable, affordable, and reliable energy.

Collaboration on metrics

Each and every one of us leaves an impact on the earth, and therefore has a responsibility to make that a positive impact. It is time we began to recognize the collaborative opportunity that provides, not only within industry, but across all sectors. Make no mistake: some of the smartest minds in the world are working to develop a better framework of solutions.

Having a measurement structure will enable a more pointed conversation about what we can do to influence sustainable initiatives and their impact to our industry, to the world.

We need to establish better ways to measure the sustainable and efficient use of resources in addition to the integrated solutions that will chart the best course for moving forward.

The first step for a new framework of metrics will be determining what is most important to measure, but who sets that? We all play a role in creating a better world, and the decision won’t fall to just one organization. We need to continue to put heads together to come up with new solutions.

Working together to drive operational efficiency

What I believe will drive the biggest impact is what we will achieve through operational practices. Through innovation, advanced analytics, and process efficiencies, operations has the potential to shape a more sustainable future.

No one is better at continuous improvement than the wonderfully Type-A critical environments operators behind the curtain at every facility.

After running very complex large-scale facilities for many years with no unscheduled downtime, they’ve learned a few things about controlling entropy, and have done so while simultaneously driving sustainability principles: use less power, use less water, optimize air flow, and so on.

After years of this residual benefit we’re now starting to see a productization of ‘sustainable operations,’ providers of data center operational services and equipment who align with the EPA’s Scope 3, outputs are differentiating with sold products via operations.

As a real-world example of operational changes that can drive sustainability in data centers, Kohler, at the behest of customers, has created innovative new engine technology immune to the historical challenges presented by wet-stacking.

For those unfamiliar with this operational challenge, wet-stacking is an accumulation of unburnt exhaust particulate; combatting this has previously necessitated long, loaded, and frequent generator testing, which increases the environmental impact of fundamental data center backup power operations and maintenance.

Our new KD Series engine, free from the constraints of wet-stacking, can be exercised at far less load, at a far greater interval, reducing spent fuel and emissions by well over 50 percent. Apply this type of immediate and direct reduction in carbon footprint to thousands of MW of gensets and the impact is both serious and measurable.

Together we can do so much

There are exciting things going on in the data center space around sustainability. Some focus on the inputs – the gas, coal, nuclear, wind, and sun that power facilities. Others focus on outputs, refining the operational practices to minimize consumption and carbon impact.

Both are beneficial to the sustainability initiatives the industry will need to move forward. The metrics and measurement systems must capture both sides of the sustainability equation.

Whatever your place in this exciting industry, collaborative solutions will be required, from the variety of energy sourcing options to the creation of new measurement standards to the ways we apply these through operations.

All must work together to deliver ever-more efficient approaches. With the smartest folks in the industry throwing their formidable brainpower and work ethic against both the creation of new technology and continuous improvement, I know with certainty that the environment definitely wins. After all, that’s what we’re here for.