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As our appetite for digital technology grows, so does the challenge to keep it sustainable

Data centres are a growing source of carbon emissions. Access to renewable energy, conducive regulatory frameworks and cleaner technology can help to cushion the industry's hefty planetary impact.

Still a relatively nascent sector, data centres are on the rise as more governments and big businesses move to cloud computing. Cloud providers including Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure, are by far the biggest tenants of data centres. Demand for cloud applications has surged as locked-down workers remain stranded from brick-and-mortar offices during coronavirus. 

Digital Realty, which delivers data centre, colocation and interconnection solutions, opened its third data centre in Singapore on Tuesday (6 April). The 50-megawatt facility, known as SIN12, is the US-based company’s largest in the country and most sustainable in the region. Singapore is ranked fifth among the top 10 data centre markets globally, according to Cushman & Wakefield

Asia Pacific is on the path to be the biggest market for data centres by 2022, with a total market size estimated at $24 billion by 2024 for colocation data centres. Southeast Asia is one of the fastest growing regions globally driving APAC’s data centre market.  

One of the biggest challenges for data centres will be to satisfy the appetite for digital expansion while adopting cleaner technologies and energy provision that will protect the planet. The industry has among the highest carbon footprints in the business world today. 

Covid-19 has fast-tracked digitalisation at an unprecedented speed, as we continue to grow products and services in this digital economy and rely on it to feed our human connections, we cannot ignore the growing energy footprint and planetary impact that goes along with it,” said Jessica Cheam, managing director, Eco-Business speaking at panel discussion on sustainability challenges during the launch 

Singapore poses several stumbling blocks to the sustainable development of data centres due to its limited land size, tropical climate, lack of cost-effective renewable energy supply and shifting policies for data centre development, according to a whitepaper by Eco-Business which investigated the future of data centres in the face of climate change.  

Singapore’s government is also considering how to adopt a more sustainable approach while maintaining a conducive business environment for data centres. The government in 2019 imposed a moratorium on data centre development amid concerns about the industry’s carbon footprint. 

Data centres are huge guzzlers of power given the need for uninterrupted power supply and extensive cooling systems. The tropical climate in Southeast Asia is a major driver of energy consumption with 35 to 40 per cent of total energy needs going to cooling technologies, according to Mark Smith, managing director, Asia Pacific for Digital Realty. 

As we continue to grow products and services in this digital economy and rely on it to feed our human connections, we cannot ignore the growing energy footprint and planetary impact that goes along with it.

Jessica Cheam, mananging director, Eco-Business 

Space constraints has limited the potential to tap renewable energy to power data centres. “There’s only so much rooftop solar or floating PV (photovoltaic) that you can deploy in Singapore,” said Smith. However, this could be overcome with “government-to-government collaboration to produce an ASEAN grid allowing Singapore to access more renewable power,” Smith said

Currently, 95 per cent of Singapore’s electricity is produced using natural gas, while the rest is produced by coal, oil, municipal waste, and solar. Despite the country’s limitations to produce renewable energy, Singapore still plans on increasing its solar capacity through importing from overseas. 

Hydrogen, renewable energy imports, liquid cooling, artificial intelligence and machine learning are possible pathways towards achieving low or zero emission data centres in the future, said Cheam. Hydrogen is expected to emerge rapidly in the next few years and could become a viable fuel alternative for sustainable data centre development in Southeast Asia.

But more robust regulatory frameworks are needed. “Singapore has committed to reaching net zero emissions by the second half of the century, and to get there requires a thorough reform of our energy systems and wider policies,” according to Cheam.

“What will drive and accelerate sustainability is the enterprise requirements,” said Nishchal Horana, senior director, Frost & Sullivan who said a holistic approach is needed. “You really need best in class infrastructure right from design and build to the ability to use innovative technologies as well as post-operations. You need the right platforms to govern and ensure you are optimising your energy use,” said Horana. 

As consumers become more environmentally conscious - more companies are looking to improve the sustainability credentials of their back-end operations. “Balancing digital growth with sustainability remains a key priority for the industry,” said Smith. 

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Asia Pacific's Hub For Collaboration On Sustainable Development
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