23 November 2021
Henry Longhurst By Henry Longhurst

How Sustainable is Data Centre Construction?

The goal remains for all European data centre market facilities to be carbon-neutral by 2030. In many ways this is an industry-leading objective, with most other global markets setting benchmarks as far away as 2050. Although this is brilliant industry goal, in order to get there we must prioritise greener construction of these data centres, too.

Despite many discussions highlighting the sustainability of data centres, many of these still only focus on operational sustainability alone. I can’t help but notice the opportunity for sustainable initiatives to also be focussed on the construction aspect too. Ensuring data centres use as little power as possible to help achieve “green” goals through district heating initiatives and natural cooling, but this is really only half the mission. The reality of reducing carbon emissions certainly requires a pivot in the conversation towards the construction element of the industry, too.

Data centres are one of the biggest global energy consumers, using approximately 2% of the worlds energy, similar to the (highly criticised) aviation industry. The forecasted growth for data centres to 2025 is only going up, with new announcements for up to $432 billion worth of energy-hungry, water-guzzling data centre projects of 50MW, 100MW or more planned across the globe.

Data Centre Construction: Environmental Impact

The construction and built environment industry accounts for 39% of all carbon emissions globally. Operational emissions, being the energy used to heat, cool and light buildings, account for 28% and the remaining 11% comes from the embodied (upfront) carbon associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole building lifecycle. Despite this, the construction aspect of data centre development is often overlooked when creating plans for reduced emissions.

When considering the greenhouse gas emissions emitted from the mining, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, transportation, and installation of building materials, the average sum of all embodied carbon makes up about half of a buildings total carbon emissions. Digital Realty believe emissions that come from its supply chain, namely the construction process, are five times as high as elsewhere in the company, especially believable with the vast reliance on steel and concrete, which take up an 19% each of the total greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing.

The journey to data centres becoming ‘green’ in terms of energy output is well underway, meaning the industry will soon look to be defined as carbon neutral. As cooling solutions and IT hardware evolve, operational efficiency will be under a microscope and the output of embodied carbon on the construction side of data centre development will quickly become the next battle.

It's been called the "last mile" of decarbonization.

The Last Mile

Data centres are being built larger and faster than ever before, meaning the number of people required to construct them grows, too. Results show 82-87% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are from the building materials, 6-8% from transportation of these materials, and 6-9% from the energy consumption of using equipment. However, the total embodied GHG emissions of concrete and reinforced steel account for a whopping 94-95%, so switching these for recycled materials could see create significant change.

At COP26, CEO of Kelbray, a UK-leading specialist engineering and early-stage construction provider, highlighted how traditional concrete alone contributes to 8% of global carbon emissions. One of the goals declared at the COP26 Glasgow meet was to provide near-zero-emission steel, promoting the push for integrating sustainable building materials further up the supply chain.

Other companies, like Biohm, are creating building materials such as insulation from waste materials, mycelium, and vegetative root-structures, as well as exploring innovative concrete-alternatives. Currently, Microsoft are exploring the use of mushrooms and algae-based building materials to ensure their data centres are environmentally friendly. Equally, innovators such as CarbonCure, inject waste CO2 into their concrete before using.

Paul Frost, Chief Architect at HSBC, said:

One of the most impactful things we can do is to use the cloud.

Whilst we are moving to more sustainable internal data centres, cloud providers are generally ahead of this curve as they have had to drive a high degree of efficiency to support their hyperscale demands. That, and their advances in use of green energy, puts them ahead in the goals of net-zero carbon.

Brownfield & Retrofit Construction

Building a new greenfield facility can use up to eight times as much carbon as upgrading or repurposing an existing building. Where a greenfield construction consists of a brand new, never before built on, site, a brownfield site consists of utilising previously developed land. Greenfield sites often require destruction of natural habitats or farmland, and therefore the removal of plants and organisms that would otherwise be sequestering carbon from our atmosphere.

Despite this being a relatively quick switch, brownfield sites tend to be much more labour intensive meaning they are often avoided. If the land was previously used for industrial purposes then it will also require decontamination, in many cases the government refuse to take care of this meaning companies are discouraged from investing in this process.

As data centre development becomes reliant on passing new environmental standards certifications, such as LEED – a globally recognised symbol of sustainability achievement and leadership – investment in brownfield sites is recommended. Environmental certifications are easier to pass with a brownfield deployment, as these developments avoid the environmental disruption required for greenfield sites. Alongside this, even if a company has to demolish the previous building, foundations are already laid so much less concrete is required for the build.

Prefabrication & Off-site Manufacturing

Transport being a much smaller percentage of carbon usage in construction than on site output means that producing construction material off-site, could be an equally more environmentally friendly solution. Items such as doors, wall panels, floor panels, stairs, windows, walls, and roof trusses can all be built in a controlled, carbon neutral environment and transported across once developed

Not only is this method cost-effective but benefits the environment too. Use of completely prefabricated data centres where aspects of the build are transported and assembled on-site are equally as safe and structurally sound. Where onsite methods require extra materials, and therefore waste, it also produces severe air and soil pollution which cannot be controlled in an open-air environment. Developing items off site, in a controlled environment, allows for proper control and disposal of these aspects of the construction process.

Many firms have outwardly suggested the use of modular construction to quickly improve sustainability, with predictions showcasing up to 90% less waste. Unused sections or parts from demolished facilities can be reused in future projects and transportation can be hydrogen and electric powered. Companies such as Modubuild, Ardmac, and Jones Engineering are pioneering modular data centre construction in Europe to showcase how this method is set to be market leading in its success.

Quantifiable Measurement

Tools such as the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) from Building Transparency allows users to input their estimated materials-use during a planned construction project to create a bill of materials. This helps to estimate carbon impact per item, measuring environmental impact and offering sustainable alternatives available. Construction companies such as Mercury Engineering have piloted EC3 with great success, establishing significant reductions in the concrete, steel structure and the building envelope for its clients.

Similarly, the EU has introduced BAMB, a material tracing passport enabling tracking of materials throughout the supply chain. Systems such as these create incentives for suppliers to switch to reusable materials and encourage a circular economy. Through tracking, materials are able to be effectively reused and recycled as required.

There is a huge opportunity for companies within the data centre market to optimise construction processes and reduce emissions output. New regulations make this move a crucial one to ensure the future of the data centre market is able to meet necessary requirements, but will companies undertake the switch? I think cost and incentive must be seriously considered on a wider scale, for this to be truly possible.

Are you interested in discussing the future of the data centre market in some more detail? I’d love to speak with you. Drop me a message at henry.longhurst@industrial-cm.com.

Read more about my insight on construction in the data centre industry, here.

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Henry Longhurst

Henry builds specialist teams across the Hi-Tech & Mission Critical Construction and Engineering markets globally. His pioneering and dedicated approach to recruitment has led him to become one of the most reputable consultants in the global data centre and life science EPCM markets. Henry has a strong track record of successfully building technical and commercials teams, routinely delivering collaborative solutions for both his clients and candidates alike.

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