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Issue 35, May/June 2014


USING LIFECYCLE ASSESSMENT Beth Whitehead, sustainability engineer at Operational Intelligence, describes how energy consumption and mix, and the number of servers provide data centers with the biggest opportunity for environmental impact savings

here is no denying the data center industry is acutely aware of the energy it consumes. But is energy consumption the only demon in the data center? Metrics such as power usage effectiveness (PUE) are widely used by the industry, and their adoption has opened up the dialogue on environmental impact. But once a facility’s PUE is optimized where should attention be turned to next? Should the IT energy consumption or perhaps the embodied impact of the IT equipment be reduced? Or has the improvement in PUE resulted in an environmental impact in another area of the data center?


These questions are hard to answer in isolation. Understanding trade-offs is incredibly complex, but to ensure the driving down of energy does not result in pollution shift, environmental impact needs a more holistic approach that goes beyond just the energy used to operate a facility.


Lifecycle assessment (LCA) considers the energy and raw materials used at every stage of a product’s supply chain, and the emissions that are created as a result of this consumption. The method studies this consumption and resulting emissions from the moment materials are extracted to the point the component is made, used and then disposed of at its end of life. Using cause-effect analysis, the contribution each emission has to a specifi c environmental impact – such as climate change, land use and carcinogens – is then quantifi ed, much like the use of global warming potentials to compare refrigerants. By considering every component of the data center together and beyond operation, environmental trade-offs can be quantifi ed and managed.

For example, consider energy consumption and apply it to servers. Server inlet temperatures are raised to enable a reduction in operational cooling energy. These higher temperatures can increase server fan energy, minimizing operational savings from reducing cooling loads. If the server could be increased from



1U to 2U to allow better fl ow of air across the equipment there would be additional energy used but a potential saving in this additional fan power. By using LCA, the subtleties in this example can be quantifi ed and total life time energy consumption, and other environmental impacts, minimized.

LCA is not a new concept. It has existed since the 1960s when Coca-Cola used it to understand the environmental implications of changing from glass to plastic bottles. Today it is used extensively by the chemical and construction materials industries, and there are signs that the data center industry is joining the revolution. Perhaps the most signifi cant sign is the release of a white paper on the topic by The Green Grid, suggesting that it should eventually be included in the Data Center Maturity Model. We have also seen the emergence of ICT studies that

look at the impact of embodied carbon pre- and post-operation, and operational carbon and the creation of the Electronics Disposal Effi ciency metric which monitors the impact of electronic equipment disposal.


Results from a recent research project run by HP and the London South Bank University (LSBU) yielded some interesting outcomes with respect to the lifecycle environmental impact of data centers.

Figure 1 (below) shows that the impact in the data center is dependent on the type of environmental impact under consideration. For example, impact from climate change and fossil fuels is most signifi cant during the operational phase of a facility. The greatest opportunity to reduce a data center’s contribution to

Figure 1: Share of impact from the studied data center for various environmental impacts 73

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