8 Ways Data Center Environmental Impact Goes Beyond Emissions
Beginning around 2011, the mainstream media and activist outlets began paying attention to data centers, putting the pressure on industry leaders like Apple, Microsoft, and Google to clean up their power sources. These companies were already pursuing efficient operations – after all, every saved watt is saved money. But the increased coverage did seem to push them towards using renewables, as the general public realized that data centers use a staggering amount of energy and produce thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
We’ve covered all that before, and we’ve also touched on the swelling focus on data center water use, as well (facilities often require significant water use for cooling systems). But the environmental footprint of a data center goes beyond electricity or water. With systems this complex and engineering designed for 24/7, year-round operation, there are many additional factors that can often have negative impact on the planet.
Here are eight overlooked areas of the data center that have significant environmental implications.
Data center Uninterruptible Power Supply systems require some pretty huge batteries that kick in when power fluctuates or goes out, keeping systems alive for minutes to hours. These batteries have a limited lifespan, usually between two and three years, although some last up to ten. The majority of them are lead-acid, which means their manufacture usually involves destructive mining and hazardous conditions for workers. Nickel-metal hydride batteries do not contain heavy metals but they are not common in data centers.
Just like your AA batteries, these large units need proper disposal at the end of their life. There are many companies who will recycle UPS batteries. In the United States, 80% of lead manufacturing comes from recycled batteries alone.
UPS systems can also improve or degrade the energy efficiency of the entire facility.
If a data center isn’t in a good location for free cooling or indirect evaporative chillers (which simply filter outside air through water and circulate it throughout the data center floor, exchanging heat almost directly with outside air), then it will require coolant for CRAC (computer room air conditioning). Coolant might also be used for liquid cooling, which can be more efficient but does necessitate chemicals.
Coolant is often Freon / halocarbon or chlorofluorocarbons, which are mildly to highly toxic and can cause ozone depletion. Newer materials cause less damage to the ozone layer. HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons, are the current most common refrigerant and while they have zero ozone depletion potential (ODP) they do have global warming potential (GWP), meaning they can trap heat within the atmosphere.
Data centers must remain clean in order to operate efficiently. Dust is the enemy of computing equipment. However, when cleaning, technicians must also minimize static discharge, using materials that are safe for electronics. Therefore a variety of specialized cleaning solutions have emerged, and many of them, as you might guess, are toxic. Water system cleaners could contain bleach, ammonia, or chlorine.
Data centers burn a whole lot of diesel fuel. Because it goes bad after sitting for too long, generators must burn off unused fuel periodically. In addition, the systems must be checked at least quarterly for proper function, which includes running them for a semi-extended period. These are massive generators even at smaller data centers, each capable of generating multi-megawatts.
For example, Green House Data combusted 6,347 gallons of diesel fuel just in Cheyenne, WY in 2014. That’s 140,903.4 pounds of carbon dioxide. It’s currently an unavoidable cost of operation within the industry right now, as battery technology has to catch up to our immense electric demands.
Computing equipment has a finite lifespan, even if we didn’t need to keep up with performance requirements. The rule of thumb in IT has traditionally been somewhere between 3 and 5 years to replace a server or even a personal computer. Beyond upgrades, there are broken hard drives, cracked monitors, and so forth. Computers contain substances that can be harmful to the environment if simply dumped in a landfill. Responsible data centers (and regular businesses) should seek to resell usable equipment or recycle what they can. Offshore disposal is especially harmful as it also involves transportation.
Your data has to remain safe with your service provider, and to that end all data centers worth their salt have extensive and fast fire suppression systems. After all, we’re dealing with high voltage. Some of the chemicals used for fire suppression can be environmentally harmful. Others, like Novec, do not deplete the ozone layer and have a low GWP, meaning they don’t contribute as much to global warming.
These chemicals often remain highly toxic and can even find their way into rainwater runoff. Some studies do suggest that the byproducts of a large fire are themselves more toxic than fire suppression chemicals, however. Because these systems do not need to be regularly tested, the harm is minimized.
Alongside electronic waste is regular old garbage and/or recyclable boxes from equipment packaging. Customers and our own data center operations teams have to ship equipment and supplies to and from data centers frequently. A large data center processes literally tons of boxes each year. Some companies like Dell have begun to explore sustainable packaging that is 100% recycled or made from renewable resources. Otherwise, we have to recycle as much as we can, from cardboard to plastic bags.
Finally, office areas have their own set of emissions and waste from daily use. That includes personal computers, packaging, transportation to and from work, water from bathrooms and kitchens, and anything else that might cause emissions in your own home. Some office supplies, like fluorescent bulbs, also contain some toxic materials like mercury.
All together, it doesn’t paint the prettiest picture of our industry. But improvement can be made in all of these areas, as well, by minimizing the use of toxic chemicals where possible, limiting testing to the least amount possible to guarantee service, and practicing a policy of reduce-reuse-recycle across the entire operation. As new technologies and products become available, largely due to international agreements and national legislation to lower greenhouse gas emissions and global warming factors, we’ll likely see harmful chemical use decrease throughout data centers as well.