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Climate Neutral Data Centers

Digitization itself consumes energy and resources. It can be made climate-friendly.

Climate-neutral data centers – a vision or an illusion?

T-Systems and its parent company Deutsche Telekom, data-center developers and operators and hardware manufacturers are all working extremely hard to increase the efficiency of data centers, while also reducing their environmental footprint. For its part, Deutsche Telekom has pledged to reduce its carbon footprint by 90 percent in the next ten years, and is collaborating closely with many of its international customers such as energy giant Shell (see separate article (hyperlink)) with this goal in mind. After all, there is no doubt that digitization itself will continue to consume energy and resources. But as Achim Berg, business IT specialist and President of Bitkom, Germany’s digital association, points out, “it can be designed in a climate-friendly way. The pivotal element will be the power consumption of the data centers.” The calculation is simple: coal and gas generate significantly higher CO2 emissions than sun, wind and water – so digitization will become more eco-friendly and more sustainable the more it is fueled by green electricity.

There is also a huge financial aspect to consider: the annual electricity consumption of German data centers is currently around 12 million megawatt hours (MWh), about as much as it takes to power Berlin for a year. For each MWh of electricity used, data center operators in Germany pay 113.11 euros in taxes, levies and network charges alone. In Ireland, the going rate is less than half (45.76 euros/MWh), while in the Netherlands it is only 17.08 euros/MWh – less than 15 percent of the ancillary costs incurred in Germany. As Bitkom CEO Dr. Bernhard Rohleder observes, “The electricity costs, which are very high compared to other European countries, represent a decisive location disadvantage for German data centers.”

As Dr. Rohleder adds, the operators of data centers throughout Germany “must and want to improve their energy balance” in the interests of protecting the climate. “But at the same time,” he cautions, “political leaders must take into account the strategic importance of data centers for digital sovereignty if more and more capacity is not to migrate abroad.” With this in mind, Bitkom has called for an assessment of the extent to which at least the most eco-friendly data centers could be relieved of electricity taxes and other charges.

A pioneering T-Systems data center

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What kind of energy supplies data centers with electricity remains the key to environmentally friendly digitization.

One such data center could be the facility operated by T-Systems in Magdeburg-Biere, in the German federal state of Saxony-Anhalt. This is Germany’s largest data center and is effectively the ‘home’ of the Open Telekom Cloud. The facility has been awarded LEED Gold certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), has a storage capacity of several hundred petabytes and is one of the ten greenest data centers on the planet. In terms of energy efficiency, T-Systems is a pioneer; with a PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) rating of 1.3, the Magdeburg-Biere site consumes around 30 percent less energy than comparable data centers – resulting in a significant drop in CO2 emissions.

Where T-Systems’ environmental footprint is concerned, though, the company’s continued efforts to consolidate its data center landscape have had the most profound impact. Six years ago, T-Systems operated 92 data centers around the world. But simply by reducing this figure to just 13, the Deutsche Telekom subsidiary has been able to cut its operational CO2 emissions by more than 50 percent.

Specifically in Magdeburg-Biere, the cooling systems alone reduce the facility’s power consumption to a level that is considered as a blueprint for the next generation of data centers worldwide. A special mix of technology and architecture means that for around 300 days a year, the servers at the twin-core data center can be maintained at their ideal temperature using open air or adiabatic cooling only. As Johannes Krafczyk, Senior Engagement Manager at T-Systems, explains, “There is nothing more to this than evaporative cooling. In concrete terms, moisture is added to the incoming outside air via cooling towers on the roof, and this air is fed into the server rooms. We only switch on cooling units for support on the very hottest days of the year.” Using nothing more than this clever ‘trick’, T-Systems has reduced energy consumption by 30 percent versus data centers which use conventional cooling technology. An important point, given that the price of electricity remains by far the largest cost factor in the operation of data centers – accounting for half of the total operating costs alone.

But it is not merely a question of using less and greener electricity. It would be at least as beneficial to feed the heat energy generated by data centers into local heating networks. Until now, this energy has all too often been simply released into the surrounding environment as unused waste heat. But here, too, T-Systems is already planning to connect the data center to the district heating network, which is constantly being expanded in eastern Germany. These examples illustrate the direction of travel when it comes to transforming data centers in a way that embraces both edge computing and green IT. 

Author: Thomas van Zütphen
Photos: Palmer Hargreaves

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