If it makes sense to you that data centres – consumers of 3 per cent of the world’s energy – should have to disclose how much energy they are using, then you’re not alone. Rod Kington, national sustainability manager at Grosvenor Engineering Group, Lee Stewart, Ndevr Environmental director who is former Fujitsu head of and Bob Sharon of Blue IoT weigh in with some powerful arguments that in our increasingly data intensive world we should all be paying huge attention to.
There’s a little piece of legislation that many agree has put the Australian commercial building sector on track to become global leaders in energy efficiency.
It’s called the Commercial Building Disclosure (CBD) program.
Almost 10 years old, the regulatory program requires commercial office space of 1000 square metres to provide energy efficiency information when offered for sale or lease.
It works by encouraging competition in energy efficiency as tenants are less likely to choose a poorly performing building to lease when that information is at hand, much like shoppers tend to steer clear of poor energy ratings on fridges.
The CBD program is currently under review. As part of the independent review by the Centre for International Economics (CIE), the program’s suitability for other high energy building types such as shopping centres, data centres, hotels and office tenancies was considered.
The Fifth Estate has tracked the progress of the review and at the last count, hotels and office tenancies got the green light for mandatory energy performance disclosure from the reviewers. However, the recommendations didn’t extend to data centres (nor to shopping centres).
So why have energy-guzzling data centres – which are only expected to chew up more energy with the proliferation of AI and autonomous cars – been left out? The reviewers offer a number of explanations, but some experts in the field are not convinced.
A wasted opportunity
Ndevr Environmental director Lee Stewart, who is the former Fujitsu head of sustainability (Oceania region), believes a huge emissions reduction opportunity is being lost.
He says that data centres should be more accountable than office buildings as they pollute more and are also “more critical to the fabric of society”.
“The atmosphere doesn’t care where the pollution and carbon comes from and you will get more opportunity in one data centre than the whole of Martin Place & Circular Quay in Sydney.
“The industry needs change and mandatory disclosure for co-location data centres is the right step forward.”
Stewart is also of the opinion that the reviewer’s arguments not to enforce mandatory disclosure to even a small subset of colocation data centres is weak.
But it won’t work, they say
Core to the argument against extending the program is that mandatory disclosure is unlikely to drive energy efficiencies in data centres.
Evidence for this is the small improvements in energy efficiency performance in the eight data centres that are voluntarily NABERS rated.
But Stewart points out that this is a very small sample set, and that in the world of data centres, even a quarter of a star improvement is significant.
Part of the problem is that data centres can’t be turned off on the weekend for upgrades – they need to be operating 24/7 – which makes it a more challenging environment to undertake major capital works. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible – the upgrade cycle is just generally a little longer, and the improvements more incremental than you’d expect to see in an office building.
Another argument put forward by the reviewers is that colocation data centres are already across their energy performance because that’s one way to attract customers.
Data centres do measure their energy usage using a ratio metric called Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), which is essentially how much energy is used by the computing equipment in contrast to cooling and other overheads.
Most stakeholders are NOT operating at maximum efficiency
But unlike a NABERS rating, there’s no regulated standard for calculating PUE, which makes it problematic as a benchmarking tool for customers to make responsible decisions.
Stewart “totally rejects” that most stakeholders are operating at maximum efficiency. He says that there are some “really quick easy wins” to improve efficiency, such as by improving monitoring systems.
Customers are more worried about uptime than energy efficiency
Bob Sharon, founder and chief innovation officer of Blue IoT, told The Fifth Estate last month that energy efficiency is also well down the list of priorities when a tenant is selecting a data centre.
He said that uptime – the centre’s ability to run 24/7 – is always the number one concern for customers looking for somewhere to store their data.
Are data centres really so different from office buildings?
Rod Kington, national sustainability manager at Grosvenor Engineering Group, is also unconvinced by the reviewer’s arguments.
He pointed out that the Centre for International Economics repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to extrapolate the success of mandatory disclosure in the commercial sectors to other building sectors, even though data centres experience similar economic drivers to commercial buildings.
Colocation data centres have the same capital expenditure cycle as commercial buildings, for instance, and just like their office counterparts, can improve energy efficiency through LED swapouts, temperature control and HVAC replacements.
The very same responsibly-minded tenants who want an energy efficient office are also looking for somewhere to store their data.
In colocation data centres, there’s exactly the same leasing process and information mismatch as in commercial building tenants.
The reviewers also failed to recognise that companies that invest in commercial buildings also invest in data centres.
Responsible investment potential overlooked
Kington also says the report did not contextualise the program in the global investment market, nor account for the potential improvements in asset value.
He says investors are now taking sustainability seriously and that clear benchmarking helps attract superannuation funds and other investors into the sector.
Data centres are changing too fast, apparently
Another reason the reviewers said not to extend mandatory disclosure to data centres is that the market is constantly evolving.
“…they seemed to claim edge computing will cause the move away from centralised data centres,” Kington said.
“CIE demonstrated a lack of insight into the data centre market.”
It’s too hard to replace cooling systems
The reviewers also state that there are significant barriers to improving the energy efficiency of existing data centres through end of life replacement of cooling systems.
Kington says that although the data centres can be “difficult environments” for getting through these types of upgrades, this “this business as usual for data centres is in no way a reason for them not to implement energy efficiency measures.”
It is expensive to replace the cooling system in a data centre at the end of its life but Bob Sharon says that’s because energy is such a major cost for data centres, infrastructure upgrades that increase efficiency usually have quick payback times, maybe four or five years.
Government data centres as a start
Although the report said that there’s not enough evidence to warrant expansion of the CBD Program to cover data centres, it recommends assessing government data centres to see how it plays out (although Bob Sharon said that a number of government data centres have already been rated for some time).
Based on these findings, the government could then reconsider expanding mandatory disclosure requirements to other data centres, reviewers suggest.