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Sustainable data centers – is that possible?

Germany's data centers are at the limit: Industry 4.0, video streaming and home office are causing ever larger amounts of data, also because of the forced digitization caused by the pandemic. "We even see that if the incidences go up, data traffic also increases," says Jürgen Beyer, Managing Director of Pfalzkom. The company operates three data centers and thousands of kilometers of fiber optic cable, primarily in the Rhine-Neckar region. The volume of data in the Pfalzkom networks has doubled since Corona, says Beyer. This also increases the demands on German data centers.

More electricity needs than the city of Berlin

"The demand for computing power in the centers has increased tenfold since 2010," says researcher Ralph Hintemann from the Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability in Berlin. Although the IT technology used has become significantly more efficient, the growing demand for computing power is leading to significantly higher energy requirements overall. It is now 60 percent larger than it was in 2010.

"The key factor is the power consumption, especially for the servers and the cooling systems," says Hintemann. According to the Bitkom industry association, German data centers consumed 16 billion kilowatt hours in 2020. That is significantly more than the electricity consumption of the city of Berlin in the same year. Last but not least, this would jeopardize climate goals, says researcher Hintemann.

Traffic light with an ambitious goal

Politicians have also recognized this problem. Newly installed data centers are to be operated in a climate-neutral manner by 2027, according to the coalition agreement of the traffic light government. The European Commission had previously set this target for all data centers, but by 2030.

Expert Hintemann still sees unanswered questions here: From how many servers does a data center count as a data center? What exactly is meant by climate-neutral operation? And: How exactly does the EU intend to intervene in the market in the event of violations? Hintemann advocates that the open questions be clarified quickly and that further measures, such as EU directives, be decided.

Renewable energies are the key

In any case, Pfalzkom is prepared, says Uwe Burre. Alongside Beyer, he is the second managing director of the company. Last year, it joined an initiative that aims to achieve the EU goal of climate neutrality by 2030 through a voluntary commitment – for example, by running the data centers with electricity from renewable energy sources.

This has been the case at Pfalzkom for six years, as Burre explains. Pfalzkom benefits from the parent company, an energy supplier that buys certified green electricity. It mainly comes from hydroelectric power plants. "But if all data centers buy green electricity in the future, then that will also be scarce," says Burre. This means that sustainable data centers by 2030 also require the expansion of climate-friendly energy sources.

The problem of waste heat

But that alone is not enough to become environmentally friendly. The obligatory use of waste heat, which is generated by the complex cooling of the IT systems in the centres, is also frequently discussed. "The waste heat from the data centers can be used to supply district heating to private apartments and commercial buildings, particularly in urban areas," says Bitkom Managing Director Bernhard Rohleder. For this, however, low-heat networks would have to be expanded.

Pfalzkom takes a slightly different approach: "We are in talks with a swimming pool and a waste disposal company nearby so that we can use the heat there," says Managing Director Burre. Overall, the industry still has some catching up to do: according to Bitkom, less than half of the data centers have so far used their waste heat.

Revision of the characteristic values necessary

Another factor is the utilization and efficiency of the servers used. Researcher Hintemann says that the most common indicator for sustainability in data centers does not even cover these points. This so-called PUE value puts the total energy used in a data center in relation to the consumption of the IT. If a lot of energy is lost elsewhere, the value is bad. However, this does not take into account whether the servers are working efficiently. "There is still a lot to think about as to how we can better define sustainability," says Ralph Hintemann.

Co-managing director Beyer from Pfalzkom can imagine that in a few years there will be a sustainability certificate for data centers, for example at European level. "Soon you won't be able to participate in any tender if you don't meet the specified criteria." By then, at the latest, the topic of sustainability – however exactly it is defined – should have arrived in the entire industry.

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