UK data centres blitz climate change targets

The sector over-performs as a whole, but 55% of sites still failed energy reduction assessments

Data centre with green high speed visualisation projection overlay

Data centre operators in the UK have fulfilled their climate change obligations two years ahead of schedule, exceeding the requirement of a 13.52% reduction in power usage by a healthy margin.

Under the climate change agreement (CCA) scheme for data centres, participants are required to reduce their Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) by 15% by the end of 2020. Calculations by techUK, a trade association for the UK's tech industry, show the sector achieved a reduction of 16.72%.

"Provisional results from the Climate Change Agreement (CCA) for Data Centres suggest that the sector has successfully met its efficiency target, the third of four milestones in the life of the scheme," said techUK's associate director for data centres.

"Collectively, UK operators have performed so well that they have fulfilled the final scheme target two years ahead of schedule. However, at individual facility level, the picture is more mixed, so the sector is not complacent and will be working harder than ever to build on these improvements in the final stage."

The headline figure serves only as an aggregation for outcomes in 150 sites, with a more detailed examination suggesting there's plenty of work to be done still. Of 88 target units, with 'target units' defined as combinations several data centre sites, 40 passed the requirements while 48 failed.

Those sites which failed to meet their targets and did not have surplus carbon from previous assessment periods were obliged to buy out the carbon needed to meet their targets if they wished to remain certified.

Brexit uncertainty has been cited as a key reason for this failure among sites that have not met their targets, due to a reduction in enterprise customers in the last few years. Older sites that were full at the start of the scheme in 2013 will also be disproportionately affected as they have struggled to realise the benefits of efficiency improvements.

Despite the reported success of UK data centre operators, critics have criticised the PUE metric as not being a robust enough performance metric of energy efficiency. It's calculated as a ratio of the total amount of energy used by a facility, against the energy delivered to computing equipment.

"The CCA target of 15 per cent improvement in PUE has been criticised by external observers unfamiliar with the commercial data centre business model," techUK's report said. "They claim that this is not nearly tough enough.

"Commercial operators providing colocation (or colocation-style services) control the infrastructure and not the IT, which remains a customer matter. PUE is a performance metric limited to infrastructure, so it is the best, or perhaps more accurately the least worst, metric to use for this type of provider."

The role of the tech industry in exacerbating climate change has come under scrutiny in recent years. This has especially been the case with regards to the role data centres play in maintaining cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Apple has even speculated on the silver linings of climate change, suggesting more natural disasters could fuel iPhone sales.

The CCA was struck following negotiations between the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and techUK, and is expected to end in 2023. There is, as of yet, no indication that BEIS will devise a replacement energy efficiency programme once the CCA expires.

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