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By Justin Bean, Sustainability Strategy and Innovation Lead, Hitachi Environment Business Division – North America
We’ve entered an era that recognizes the need for business and our global economy to operate within the confines of the environment upon which we all depend. Sustainability has become a ubiquitous topic in board rooms, business schools, and even the hallways of regulatory agencies. A key aspect of sustainability is the reduction of physical waste — and through digitalization, information has become incredibly abundant and able to reach every corner of the globe in an instant – without shipping anything physical. Everything from email, streaming media, and instruction manuals can now be distributed to an infinite number of people without occupying physical space, while remote workers collaborate without the need for an office building. In many respects, digitalization aligns perfectly with today’s business and social values. Digital solutions also provide rich insights about the world around us, and the processes that make it possible. This gets us to the first step of understanding a company’s carbon footprint, which enables emissions reduction strategies that are credible and achievable.
But data storage, management, access and distribution are part of the emissions problem as well as part of the solution. Today, data centers generate an estimated 2% of global emissions, which puts the sector on par with the global aviation industry.1 According to Enel X, an energy company that works with grid operators and data centers, data center electricity use is likely to increase about fifteen-fold by 2030 to 8% of projected total global electricity demand.
At Hitachi, we see opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of data centers through technology and data-driven approaches. No data center has exactly the same conditions, but research and practice indicates that with the right innovative solutions, data center emissions could be decreased by 88%4 and energy consumption of heavy computation like AI can even be reduced by orders of magnitude.5 Hitachi is dedicated to reducing its own carbon footprint as well as those of our customers who have sustainability goals, and we see the data center emissions challenge as an integral part of our objective to lead through innovation and contribute positively to a sustainable society.
Two areas of opportunity for data centers are sustainable growth and the use of renewables. Data center traffic has grown 400% in the past three years,6 so data centers must now extract more capacity from each existing facility’s footprint and energy supply using more advanced computing and data management technology. Simply understanding the carbon footprint of a data center can be an enormous challenge, so leveraging tools to help collaborate across infrastructure, building, energy and corporate management can make a big difference. You cannot manage what you can’t measure, after all, so starting with getting visibility on consumption and emissions is critical.
Many data centers are also ramping up their use of renewable power sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. But many of these are purchasing carbon credits instead of generating energy on-site or nearby. While this is a great start, it’s not the complete answer.
In addition to tapping alternative energy sources, data centers will need to reduce their energy consumption altogether. Using carbon footprint analytics, data centers can optimize their equipment. This involves analyzing how much space the equipment requires, how much heat is being generated and how that can be controlled more efficiently.
As data centers deploy higher server densities for AI and ML applications, the demand for cooling capacity increases due to the heat generated by sophisticated equipment. By integrating renewables into the cooling infrastructure, such as liquid cooling systems powered by solar or wind energy, data centers can not only achieve higher energy efficiency but also meet sustainability mandates.
Another opportunity we see lies in perhaps an unexpected area — with potentially significant results. Software developers can begin making their applications more sustainable by designing them to consume the right resources at the right time and in the right location to minimize their environmental impact. Assessing and modernizing applications can make a big difference in carbon footprint – and the user’s experience.
Each of these measures enhances the environmental performance of both existing data centers and future facilities — which can be designed from the outset with a climate-conscious mindset — a significant advance beyond what is possible using today’s data center information management systems. While existing systems excel at monitoring equipment health, they do not speak the language of sustainability. When considering sustainability for greenfield or brownfield sites, renewables can be put in place to power the data center, while immersion cooling can dramatically improve cooling efficiency, as other innovations can be designed and incorporated from the start.
At Hitachi, we’re developing data center solutions that encompass technological, organizational, training and regulatory challenges to allow you to see your data center operations in the language of sustainability. The need is growing, as climate change pressures become urgent and expectations for carbon footprint reporting requirements are increasing. Preparing now can help ensure that your measurement and reporting practices are fully compliant with emerging audit requirements and standards.
Successfully addressing today’s data center sustainability challenges requires a multifaceted approach that reflects all of the above and more. Start by investing up front in conversations and analyses of where your organization is today and where it needs to progress. What does your data center have in place today that’s working? What’s not working, and what options are available to address those challenges? By thinking purposefully and putting the right metrics in place, you can create a pilot project or beta test that, once successful, can be replicated across your organization. Then, when you’ve established and defined your milestones, you’re ready to achieve initial wins and gain buy-in from stakeholders to build momentum on your overall sustainability journey. With more than 50 years of experience in information technology (IT), Hitachi is an ideal partner in these exercises because none of this is theoretical to us — we’re doing this now in our own organization. Our aim at Hitachi is to offer integrated sustainable data center energy solutions, in order to advance decarbonization and help reduce the carbon footprint. We have set a goal of carbon neutrality at our business sites by 2030 and across our entire value chain by 2050, which is also our target date for a 50% improvement in water resource usage. We’re committed to converting this potential to performance, both internally and with our partner companies. Transitioning to a sustainable economy is a challenge we must accomplish together. The good news is that sustainability is good for business too, reducing costs and risks, while opening up new opportunities to build new ventures or markets and where communities and people can thrive. Learn more about our perspective and practice in data center sustainable innovation.
Sustainability Strategy and Innovation Lead, Hitachi Environment Business Division – North America
Justin furthers the mission of social innovation and building a more sustainable society through technology and business innovation. Justin has worked with both Silicon Valley startups and fortune 500s that are applying AI, IoT, and other disruptive technologies to improve our cities, commutes, and daily lives. He has worked in the US, Japan, and South Africa on projects that include sustainability, smart cities, electric vehicles, renewable energy, machine learning, and smart transportation. Justin was the recipient of the THINK Prize for the Financial Empowerment Challenge from renowned innovation and design firm IDEO and holds an MBA in sustainable management.