Energy-guzzling data centers must drive toward green cloud computing
Building vast data centers around the world has raised concerns about their high energy and water consumption.
This was highlighted when Google’s plans to construct a data center in Luxembourg in 2019 faced criticism when it was estimated that it would consume up to 12 percent of the country’s power supply. And last July, government officials and academics in Mesa, Arizona, in the US spoke out against Microsoft’s plans to build a hyperscale data center that would use around 1.75 million gallons of water every day to cool the plant.
The rapid adoption of digital technologies is transforming the global economy, social dynamics, and the way we process information. The emergence of cloud computing over the past two decades has provided firms with services that offer greater security and flexibility, but also boost cost savings and protect against data loss. Hosting data on the cloud is also more environmentally friendly due to reductions in the use of hardware, paper waste, and commuter-related emissions.
So, given the above considerations, how can we develop best practices to support the vision of a corporate net-zero in the future?
The global drive of firms toward the UN’s net-zero target by 2050 has leapt forward in recent years because digital technologies offer green solutions to different sectors of the economy. However, it is equally important that the digital sector itself becomes green. To achieve this, legislation is key.
The EU is at the forefront of this in terms of regulating energy-efficient cloud computing, with a target of establishing climate-neutral data centers by 2030. To meet this goal, the bloc’s executive branch, the European Commission, relies on a mix of existing and new legislation — such as the EU’s Code of Conduct on Data Center Energy Efficiency, the EcoDesign Regulation on Servers and Data Storage Products, and the EU’s Green Public Procurement criteria for data centers, server rooms, and cloud services. This framework aims to ensure that data centers reuse waste energy such as heat and are also powered by more renewable energy sources.
Governments in the Middle East and North African region are also developing plans to increase clean energy adoption. Saudi Arabia’s National Renewable Energy Program is a strategic initiative under its Vision 2030 economic and social reform plan and the King Salman Renewable Energy Initiative. The program aims to grow renewable energy schemes through public-private partnerships and the Kingdom’s commitment to energy transition.
In 2017, the UAE launched its Renewable Energy Strategy, which plans to double the nation’s use of clean energy to 50 percent by 2050 and reduce the carbon footprint of its power generation by 70 percent. As the digital economy develops and MENA countries continue their transition to renewable energy, the regional regulatory environment for tech firms will likely demand more energy efficiency as well as targeted regulation for data centers.
As the demand for online services grows, regulators and companies must come together to ensure green laws for the digital sector contribute to carbon-neutrality by 2030 as well as support business objectives. The large amount of renewable energy purchased by tech giants such as Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft demonstrates these firms can promote green cloud services. The three companies mentioned above plan to power their data centers and operations with 100 percent renewable energy and invest in new power storage technologies to hit the 2030 carbon-neutrality target.
The work of these firms are a starting point for best practice guidelines for companies around the world, even though environmental laws for the digital sector may still require new areas of compliance.
• Anja Engen is a policy analyst consultancy Access Partnership Middle East