Balancing energy-hungry innovation with environmental impact

In the recent budget, chancellor Philip Hammond declared that he’d like to secure Britain’s position as a world leader in technology and innovation, with applications such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, blockchain and autonomous cars taking top priority.

However, as technological advancements such as these continue to grow in the UK, it is important that the environmental impact of powering these technologies is not overlooked.

The exponential increase in energy required to power these intensive-computer applications may prove more complex for the UK to sustain and manage than anticipated; providing more strain on the National Grid, which is already working near capacity and generating more greenhouse gas emissions than ever before.

Therefore, finding a sustainable data management solution for the computing needs required to support these applications is critical. In an effort to remediate the growing energy and compute disparity, the UK should reconsider where and how they store these high-compute applications, looking instead to a more efficient location that can deliver less environmental impact, while still offering the necessary power requirements at reduced costs.

One of the largest energy complications of the modern age is the manufacturing of indirect greenhouse gas emissions through the traditional method of burning of fossil fuels to produce energy.

These emissions contaminate the atmosphere and lead to detrimental effects on the planet. As enterprises look to implement more high-compute applications into their environments, the demand for power will intensify immensely to not only support these applications but store them as well.

Feeding the data centres

To better understand how much data these types of applications utilise, consider autonomous or driverless vehicles. These vehicles can transmit up to four terabytes of data per day, per car. If traditional UK data centres are pegged to house this data, they will rely on natural gas and coal to support these intensive energy requirements.

In 2014, data centres accounted for 1.6% of the world’s energy consumption. By 2017, this has nearly doubled to 3.0% (around 420 terawatts), and by 2020 it has been predicted that data centre energy consumption could top 507.9 terawatts.

Currently, data centres contribute about 2% of all global carbon emissions, with each single (1U) server producing an average CO2 emission around 450kg. With these implications on the rise, traditional fossil fuel burning data centres continue to create an improved threat to the environment and carbon footprint.

In addition to the environmental impact of traditional fossil-fueled UK data centres, the UK National Grid is approaching maximum capacity. During the winter months the National Grid is pushed to its limits, with spare capacity on the grid running as low as 6.2%.

As mentioned, an influx of high-compute applications will result in the need for more available power – something that the UK grid cannot afford. This rise in production will be primarily placed in the hands of gas-fired and coal-powered stations. With National Grid’s Electricity Market Reform acting body’s decision to sell off the rights to produce spare power in an electricity capacity market auction, planets that utilise fossil fuels are currently wining the lion’s share. The auctions results will not only reduce the National Grid’s overall capacity even further in the winter, but it also increases the production of greenhouse gases.

One of the most direct impacts on enterprises looking to support and store high-compute applications is the cost of the required power. Energy costs account for anywhere between 25-60% of the overall operating costs at a local UK data centre, but can be much lower in alternative regions known for an abundance of available power, like Nordic regions. For example, a data centre in the UK that uses around 30GWh of power per year will need to pay about 3,000,000 euros just for electricity alone.

Time to relocate?

By exporting computing needs out of the UK, British premiums can be avoided.

Also, relocation to a Nordic location allows enterprise to leverage low-cost and reliable energy sources where data centre operators can secure relatively low long-term fixed price contracts. This exportation can result in operational savings of more than 600,000 euros per year.

With the reality of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, diminishing National Grid availability, and large operating costs, the UK’s ability to power these intensive-compute applications in its race to become a world leader in technology and innovation is unlikely at best.

Alternatively, the country and its enterprises should instead consider relocating their high-compute needs to a more sustainable, renewable power source, and Iceland maybe the answer. Iceland uses 100% renewable energy powered by hydroelectric and geothermal resources and has an abundance of available power–making electricity both reliable and environmentally friendly.

Additionally, Iceland has one of the lowest energy cost points in the world, enabling companies to secure long-term fixed price contracts, and utilise its low ambient temperature year-round to provide free cooling in data centres.

As the UK continues to push to be at the forefront of these innovative technologies, trying to increase the UK capacity or reduce consumption and greenhouse emissions may not be the best option. It is imperative that enterprises consider all variables and options as they look to make informed decisions about not only the support and storage of their intense-compute applications.

Adam Nethersole

Adam Nethersole

Senior marketing director, Verne Global

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