How to Build a Green Data Centre

Tuesday, 30th April 2024

Kao Data’s VP of Marketing Adam Nethersole – fresh from his recent address at pro-manchester’s Green Transformation Conference – talks about accepting the inconvenient truth around data centres, and how Kao Data is putting sustainability first with its £350m investment in Stockport.

You would be forgiven for not knowing anything about a data centre.

As techUK put it recently, we are “the most important industry you have probably never heard of”, yet we are the third fastest growing in the UK – of all sectors. We are a shining light of UK business success on the global stage and in just ten years, data centres have become critical infrastructure across our nation.

So why is it so vital? Because we support pretty much every digital interaction you can think of, as an individual, as your street and community, as your business and in society at large. 24/7, 365 days a year, compute capability now underpins our digitised lives.

We are behind you when you add a WhatsApp post, watch your favourite Netflix series, order anything online, plan a trip, take a flight, use a Sat Nav, speak to family on Zoom, bank money, run a government department or enable the data-intensive research that helps create life-saving vaccines in a pandemic. Mobile phones nowadays are just hand-held portals into data centres and they help us have more than 500 interactions with a data centre, somewhere, every day.

We are interceding in every facet of industry and AI will accelerate this beyond all our imaginings. Being ‘engineered for AI’ is a must do – it’s already transforming compute capability and data management needs – with the demand from organisations of all kinds for compute to support AI development, our industry can’t build data centres fast enough.

And, we need data centres near us. While some of the computing capacity can be placed ‘off shore’ in remote locations close to plentiful power and cold environments to chill computer servers, much of our compute landscape needs to be near the end-user. If you want to enjoy online gaming, entertainment, Zoom calls, etc without buffering we need data centres near eyeballs. Plus, this is before we even begin thinking about autonomous driving – that will need micro data centres almost every mile so cars have a relay in connectivity as they move.

Our day job

We have four key things we have to deliver around the clock at our data centres.

● The first is to keep our data centre powered 365/24/7. While we can probably do without our email server for a day or two, if you are sequencing genomes for life-saving research you need your compute on, and always on.

● Then we need to keep it cool – if you imagine the density of hardware in a data centre it needs to be kept at a workable, energy efficient temperature.

● Thirdly we have to stay connected to allow data to flow in-and-out of the data centre.

● And we need to make sure the data centre is secure because data has become the new gold rush. Data is valuable and one company’s insights are another company’s competition…

Data centres together also have a more important role to play – to ensure their part of the tech pyramid – the very base of all the compute and the data intensive companies, start-ups, Apps and innovations above them, are able to be sustainable.

That job is to be as close to net zero as possible ourselves so that we give the compute-intensive companies we support above us an excellent chance of meeting their own targets. Data centres probably account for the largest element of Scope 3 emissions in most of their compute food chains as we are the largest consumers of power, therefore it’s crucial our facilities are as sustainable as possible.

There is a Europe-wide data centre industry charter – the Climate Neutral Data Centre pact – involving over 100 data centres – which keeps us on track. We are all signed up to get to net zero as a sector by 2030.

Due to the hard work from all of our team, and especially my Compliance colleagues Gary and Katie, I am delighted to say we are well on the way to that target and working to get closer to that benchmark with every new data centre we build.

So how are we doing it? With five key areas of focus

1. Sustainable construction

We always try to build on brownfield sites, so our development in Stockport is going to repurpose an old concrete factory site in an established industrial estate.

We follow well-established construction guidelines called BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) and make sure we attain an excellent rating. This is the minimum standard now for all data centre construction.

We are also completely aligned with the goals of The Open Compute Project, which is an organisation that shares designs of data centre products and best practices among companies worldwide. Its principles around efficiency, impact, openness, scale, and sustainability provide a proven route map for success.

2. Renewable energy

Data centres in certain regions, like the Nordics, Canada, etc have the fortune to be able to connect via private wire to plentiful amounts of renewable power, whether this is a geothermal vent or hydro-electric power. Without these options in the UK, one of the ways operators will try to ensure their energy provision is as low carbon as possible is to do this through Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin (REGO). As defined by Ofgem, REGO certificates are proof for customers that a given share of energy was produced from renewable sources. While not ideal, and they certainly have their critics, for data centre operators not directly connected to a renewable source, REGOs are the best current option available provided by the energy industry. Without a geothermal spring in Manchester, or a neighbouring hydro-electric dam in Stockport, using REGO backed, certified green energy is the best we, and all other large-scale operators around the UK can do.

However, we don’t think this is good enough so we’ve taken the next step forward in our own green energy journey to proactively search for something better. Through unique collaboration with our energy provider all the renewable energy we use is now associated with a specific renewable asset in the UK. Every electron of energy Kao Data consumes is matched by an equivalent capacity generated by this asset. While we’re still using the REGO certificated system, we’re removing the uncertainty as to the source and validity of this green energy, by ensuring our power is matched by genuine, renewable energy – generated here in the UK, at this wind farm.
This also provides certainty to the market, and incentivises continued development of renewable assets, by providing a committed, long-term demand for the wind farm.

3. Renewable fuel

While a data centre can offset its power usage and direct the same amount of power they used through non-renewable sources back into the grid, the issue of back-up power generation still remains. We’ve introduced hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) fuels for backup generators instead of traditional diesel to reduce 90% of net co2 emissions.

4. Energy efficient cooling

Temperature control is key to creating an energy efficient data centre so we monitor temperatures in the data halls continually and use free air cooling techniques to ensure hardware works at its optimum level, while using as little energy as possible.

5. Responsible citizenship

Sustainability does not stop with better use of resources in buildings and products. At Kao Data we are always looking for new ways to support the communities that support us.

So things like being proactive in schools with our Kao Data Academy, being vocal on green issues and explaining our strategies in a detailed independently audited ESG report, supporting half a million bees for The British Bee Charity and working with community groups to support their activities.

The inconvenient truth is we need data centres – but we need to do it right.