Data Centers & Sustainability

In today’s increasingly digital world, IT technology continues to flourish, leading to a growing reliance on cloud-based data storage and processing. As a result, new data centers are being constructed globally, and existing facilities are expanding to meet future needs. The data center construction market is anticipated to double within the next five years, with a compound annual growth rate of about 10%. This thriving industry, however, also comes with new challenges to solve in terms of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.


Amidst these environmental concerns, data center owners are adopting sustainable design solutions and green building practices to reduce energy costs and improve facility performance. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, a globally recognized green building rating system, is becoming more widely implemented. While currently less than 5% of U.S. data centers are LEED certified, this number is on the rise.

Data centers consume approximately 250 TWh of electricity, accounting for 1% of global usage. Global internet traffic is surging, driven by increasing demand for video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming, and social networking. This trend is expected to continue, with global internet traffic projected to double within the next 3 to 5 years.

The reliance on data centers will only grow as internet penetration rates improve worldwide. The launch of 5G, the rise of IoT devices, and the thriving cryptocurrency landscape will further exacerbate this demand, requiring more data processing than ever before. As a result, the pressure on data centers will continue to increase, underscoring the importance of sustainable and efficient facility design.

Why do data center have a significant negative environmental impact

Data centers can be quite detrimental to the environment due to their constant need for temperature-controlled environments. Research indicates that nearly 40% of the energy consumed by data centers is used to cool IT equipment. While relocating millions of data centers to colder climates like Siberia is unrealistic, constructing data centers in such regions could help reduce emissions. Google, for instance, established a data center in Hamina, Finland in 2009, and later invested an additional €600 million in this eco-friendlier initiative.

Since 2014, Google’s data centers have been consuming 50% less energy than the industry average by implementing efficient evaporative cooling solutions, intelligent temperature and lighting controls, and custom-built servers designed to minimize energy use. However, with nations increasingly enforcing data localization laws, building data centers in colder climates beyond their borders is becoming less feasible.

According to digital privacy expert Ray Walsh, the environmental impact of data centers extends beyond electricity consumption. Coolants often contain hazardous chemicals, and battery backups needed during power shortages pose environmental risks due to mining for battery components and the disposal of toxic batteries. Data centers also frequently rely on diesel fuel to meet power demands.

Vincent de Rul, director of energy solutions at EDF Energy, concurs but emphasizes that data centers not only present sustainability challenges but strategic ones as well. Energy costs can account for 70-80% of a data center’s operational expenses, making power supply a crucial business issue. One provider faced a fine of over one million pounds for a 12-minute outage caused by a problem in their local power distribution grid.

How to make data centers more sustainable ?

In the quest to make data centers more sustainable in the long term, it is essential to focus on energy-efficient design principles, innovative technologies, and responsible operational practices. By combining these approaches, data center operators can reduce environmental impact, increase efficiency, and lower operational costs.

One of the key factors in designing sustainable data centers is incorporating energy-efficient design elements, such as proper insulation, efficient cooling systems, and natural ventilation. These elements help minimize energy consumption and reduce the overall environmental impact of the facilities. Implementing advanced cooling technologies, like free-air cooling, liquid cooling, and evaporative cooling, can further decrease the energy needed for temperature control and improve overall efficiency.

In addition to design elements, monitoring the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) is crucial for achieving long-term sustainability. PUE is a metric that compares the total energy consumption of a data center to the energy used by its IT equipment. A lower PUE indicates greater energy efficiency, which can be achieved through improved design and operational practices. By tracking and optimizing PUE, data center operators can enhance their facility’s energy efficiency and reduce environmental impact.

LEED Certification

Green building certifications, such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), provide a valuable framework for designing and operating environmentally friendly and sustainable data centers. Pursuing these certifications demonstrates a commitment to sustainability and helps ensure that data centers adhere to best practices in green building design and operation. Since data centers have their own specificities such higher energy intensity compared to other types of facilities, LEED adapts its requirements for data centers.

Green practices

Adopting electrical and mechanical best practices is vital for optimizing energy efficiency in data centers. Locating data centers near renewable energy sources is another effective strategy for enhancing sustainability and reducing the environmental impact of these facilities. Finally, improving general energy savings by focusing on by focusing on aspects such as lighting, HVAC systems, windows, and appliances is essential to make data centers more sustainable.

Learn more about sustainable data centers and green practices.