What do you need to know about making data centers sustainable?

Will data centers incorporate innovative sustainability and energy-efficiency features? Learn about the trends here

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer June 7, 2023
Courtesy: SmithGroup

Data center insights 

  • Sustainability and energy efficiency often top the list of data center trends.  
  • Environmental, social and governance (ESG) plans are driving businesses to design more energy-efficient data centers. 

Bill Kosik, PE, CEM, BEMP, Senior Energy Engineer, DNV, Oak Park, Illinois – Brian Rener, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Mission Critical Leader, SmithGroup, Chicago, Illinois – Ameya Soparkar, Market Leader, Mission Critical, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Rockville, Maryland – Robert Sty, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, HDR Inc., Phoenix, Arizona


  • Bill Kosik, PE, CEM, BEMP, Senior Energy Engineer, DNV, Oak Park, Illinois
  • Brian Rener, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Mission Critical Leader, SmithGroup, Chicago, Illinois
  • Ameya Soparkar, Market Leader, Mission Critical, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Rockville, Maryland 
  • Robert Sty, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, HDR Inc., Phoenix, Arizona

Last year, experts indicated sustainability and efficiency would top the list of data center trends. Do you believe that prediction is true and why do you think that? 

Bill Kosik: Ever since the 2008 publication from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories Report to Congress on Server and Data Center Energy Efficiency: Public Law 109-43 and the 2016 follow-up analysis United States Data Center Energy Usage Report, there has been debate if data centers really pose a challenge in the amount of electricity they consume and the resulting environmental impacts. As presented in the 2016 report, the early estimates published in the 2008 report were significantly overstated. However, many advancements in computing technology and efficiency gains occurred between 2008 and 2016, skewing the initial methodology and analysis techniques used in the initial analysis.  

However, instead of a low concentration of electricity use in data centers, there is a more concentrated distribution of facilities that have much higher electrical loads. These facilities are almost ubiquitous — the cloud and hyperscale facilities that keep the internet up and running. This model is a challenge in locating these facilities — some metropolitan areas do not have the generation or distribution capabilities. So, while the actual outcome of a prediction may not be totally correct, the fact is that there will continue to be an insatiable need for expanding our digital economy, which will continue the need for data centers. 

Brian Rener: It depends on the data center market. Government and higher education data centers often have high sustainability levels including U.S. Green Building Council LEED targets. Enterprise data centers with internet and social media companies also retain a desire to achieve innovative sustainable features. The co-location market faces higher challenges to implements sustainable features and be cost competitive with other co-location facilities. They also tend to work off a standard design template but attempt new features when it makes economic sense. 

Ameya Soparkar: Sustainability and efficiency are more of a maturating of the industry than a trend. When anything new is build it starts as inefficient, consumes large amounts of energy, like the steam engine, which had a less than 3% efficiency in the early years, not good for the environment, but it led to further innovation as the demand grew. As more people viewed the problem from different angles, they made their contribution which led to the transportation we now have. I think constantly finding ways to reduce waste and reduce/eliminate environmental toxins are just responsible practices that are good for business and environment. As the data center demand is growing, I feel all the professionals in our industry, in their own ways, are finding strategies to increase efficiency, reduce building and operation cost and reduce the carbon footprint. 

Robert Sty: I do believe that sustainability and efficiency would be at the top of the list of data center trends. This has been the case for several years. You can see the trend as power usage effectiveness (PUE) values, in general, have gone down. The focus has mostly been on energy efficiency, but now our clients are looking for holistic solutions to reduce carbon footprint and the amount of water in the portfolio of facilities. This is driven by their environmental, social and governance (ESG) plans. Reduction in embodied carbon of construction materials, as well as unique and innovative ways to power the data center — hydrogen, for example — are becoming just as important as energy conservation. 

What level of performance are you being asked to achieve, such as Uptime Institute tier guidelines, WELL Building Standards, U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification, net zero energy or other guidelines?  

Robert Sty: Most clients are designing around the Uptime Institute’s Tier III platform, which is in general an N+1, concurrently maintainable system. It provides a good balance between uptime and capital expenditure. The ANSI/TIA-942 Telecommunications Infrastructure Standard for Data Centers is another standard that also is leveraged for designing mission critical systems. The TIA Standard Rating 3 is comparable to the Uptime Institute’s Tier III. When it comes to the LEED program, most of the clients who request this target the gold rating, which is very achievable through good design and construction practices. If you look at many of the ESG plans in the industry, they are targeting net zero carbon and water positive operations by certain dates, varying depending on the individual company, but 2030 seems to be the general industry target.  

The University of Utah Downtown Data Center in the high desert of Salt Lake City uses a combination of outside air-free cooling economizer, direct evaporative cooling and fluid coolers for an up to 10 MW predominantly air-cooled system (with a limited amount of liquid-cooled high-performance cooling). Courtesy: SmithGroup

What unusual systems or features are being requested to make such projects more energy efficient? 

Brian Rener: We are seeing more desire to look at water saving designs when working with high-density cooling. In addition, we love when data center waste heat has a way to be diverted to non-data center facilities on-site, such as mixed-use campuses.  

Robert Sty: We are seeing more requests for investigation into the use of large-scale energy storage systems in lieu of standby generators. Standby generators are a major source of emissions and can create noise problems if the data center is relatively close to residential areas. Energy storage systems are still coming up against space and cost constraints to make them truly viable solutions, but it is encouraging that this technology is being considered in a broader context. 

What types of sustainable features or concerns might you encounter for these buildings that you wouldn’t on other projects? 

Robert Sty: Most of the focus has been on building mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, as these are very energy intensive facilities compared to office buildings, yet there are opportunities across the entire portfolio. Sustainable on-site power solutions are being investigated to reduce the overall carbon footprint of the facility, yet also to address certain regional limitations in power distribution. There are a few lessons learned that the data center industry can take from other building types. Concrete is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and these facilities use quite a bit. Methods such as the use of fly ash to reduce GHG have migrated over to this industry. The hyperscale groups are also looking beyond the facilities, to their entire supply chain, for opportunities for carbon reduction. 

What types of renewable or alternative energy systems have you recently specified to provide power?  

Robert Sty: Two opportunities come to mind, yet these are in the early stages of investigation and development across the industry. One is reduction of standby generators using large-scale battery energy storage. The goal of reducing pollutants from operating generators comes up against current cost and technology limits of battery chemistry. There are significant fire and life safety considerations with the deployment of these systems due to the amount of energy stored. The second is the transition from fossil-based fuels as a primary and standby source of power to hydrogen. This is a long-term strategy and the economic viability is not proven at this point. Also, the production of hydrogen needs to be based on sustainable principals, aka green hydrogen. These solutions require significant capital investments and research as these advances past the early stages of investigation, yet could very well be a solution for the next generation of data centers. 

How has the demand for heat recovery technology influenced the design for these kinds of projects?  

Bill Kosik: Heat recovery from data centers, like many industrial applications that has excess heat as a result of the process, can use the waste heat in several different ways, one important part in recovering heat is the temperature of the water or air and how the heat is transferred from the application so it can be used in another way. In data centers, the first criterion is the temperature of the waste heat. An this is determined by the type if IT equipment and cooling methods. As an example, using direct chip cooling or other methods using a liquid as a heat rejection medium, the water will flow into common headers that can connect to heat exchange devices. However, the liquid needs to be sufficiently hot to be useful for an outside application, such as heating, snow melting, water heating/preheating and others. 

Robert Sty: Heat recovery from data center cooling systems is a popular topic in sustainability discussions. The idea of reusing wasted energy is always deemed as a positive, yet there are some considerations in incorporating waste heat recovery. This approach works very well when deploying liquid cooled high-performance cooling systems on a campus where the heat sink (air handling unit heating coil or other system) is relatively close to the data center. The phase I load of the data center and the amount of potential heat recovery, needs to be reviewed against the requirements of the heat sink process.  

What value-add items are you adding these kinds of facilities to make the buildings perform at a higher and more efficient level? 

Robert Sty: We are looking at the building in a very holistic view point now instead of just the traditional views of mechanical and electrical efficiencies. Reduction of embodied carbon of the materials used in construction, increases in water efficiency and reduction of diesel fuel stored on-site are some of the items being examined. I believe that the next generation of data centers will incorporate sustainable on-site power generation and storage at a scale we have not seen previously.