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Greenwashing is not the answer

In his latest blog, Mike Scott, looks at the challenges of data center sustainability, why it's becoming a critical societal issue for countries around the world, and solutions having a real-world impact.

Thanks to data centres, our increasingly digital world can bring huge environmental efficiencies to a whole range of activities, but these benefits come with costs of their own.

Data centres are power hungry – and as they use water to help with cooling, they are thirsty, too, in an increasingly water-scarce world. In the wake of the COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow, there is growing pressure from investors and civil society for companies to reduce their carbon footprint. The focus on companies’ emissions, both direct and throughout the value chain (Scope 1, 2 and 3), is growing ever more acute.

As companies make greater use of data centres, the energy use and wider sustainability of individual facilities and the industry as a whole is more in the spotlight than ever before.

Marietje Schaake, international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, said in the Financial Times recently that almost 30% of Ireland’s electricity demand will come from data centres in 2028, while the sector will also be responsible for 15% of Denmark’s power consumption by 2030.

Markets such as Singapore and the Netherlands have stopped issuing permits for new data centres because of the pressure they put on the power transmission system.

Data centre providers and users are trying a number of things to address the issue, but they do not always solve the problem. While the biggest data centre users are able to build their own renewable capacity, that can create license to operate problems if the power is not shared with the local community. For other users without the scale, buying green electricity to offset data centre energy use is one option but many power purchase agreements are opaque and do not provide a clear picture of where electricity is coming from and exactly how clean it is.

It is currently impossible, in almost every market in the world, to source 100% renewable energy 24 hours a day. You end up paying for the equivalent of the energy you consume, through the purchase of renewable energy certificates, but a proportion of your energy use is still fossil fuel. In some areas, much of the power used in data centres comes from highly polluting coal power.

At the same time, the sector’s growing use of water for cooling is adding to the strains on water resources, opening up to scrutiny data centres based in water-stressed areas and raising the prospect of problems for facilities sited in areas that will become water-stressed in future.

As sustainability becomes an increasingly important factor in data centre developments, the siting of facilities is increasingly becoming an environmental issue. At the same time, customers are becoming more comfortable in holding and processing certain types of data remotely, rather than in centres near to where it originates.

Verne Global’s Iceland data centre facility, which has recently expanded by 10MW, has a number of built-in advantages – it is naturally cold, helping with the task of keeping server rooms cool, and it benefits from Iceland’s 100% renewable energy mix, which removes any doubt about the provenance of the power used in the centre, as well as one of the world’s most affordable and stable grids.

The data centre sector is set for further explosive growth as the digital economy becomes ubiquitous. To ensure that it does more good than harm, that growth must be environmentally as well as economically sustainable.