Remote work, virtual learning, and the increasing use of compute-hungry tech (the IoT, AI, and VR means data center growth is exploding across the globe. Nearly half of the data centers being built are leased before they are even completed, and data center inventory in top markets grew 17% year over year.

As vital as data centers have become for facilitating modern life, this growth has brought on environmental concerns over the massive amounts of energy needed to build, cool, and operate these facilities. Data centers are notoriously energy intensive, consuming up to 50 times the energy per floor space than that used by a typical commercial space. Northern Virginia, the biggest data center market in the world, is facing power shortages and public backlash over planned data center projects. And Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, recently halted its plans for a new data center in the Netherlands after facing fierce opposition regarding the amount of energy it would require.

The industry is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s critical that operators find ways to reduce energy use in order to continue the growth needed to sustain the demand for digital services, increased connectivity, and faster internet speeds. Data centers have historically been ahead of regulations in terms of sustainability, but there are looming regulations that may impose tighter emissions controls than current power usage effectiveness (PUE) assessments provide. 

PUE was first introduced in 2007 as a way for data center managers to assess their own energy usage and maintain their ability to self-regulate. New U.S. legislation could force data center customers to rethink their own supply chains in order to meet environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals. If the data centers they are working with are not running as efficiently as possible, publicly traded companies may look for new data center support to rein in their Scope 3 emissions. 

These new regulations move sustainability to the forefront of data center design. Many data centers are looking at solutions that connect the physical and digital worlds as a way to innovate their way out of the problem. 

The real-world side of this equation includes the staff and the buildings that house the servers of the data center. The physical systems that control the HVAC inside the buildings will need to be able to sense, think, and react to changing conditions. Extreme heat in California left Twitter without one of its key data centers last summer. The failure was linked directly to an inability to control the temperature inside, causing the computers to overheat and malfunction. If the building was able to sense the rising temperature and decrease the internal temperature in response, this outage may not have occurred. 

As carbon emissions become more of a critical issue for the industry, sustainability teams are also going to grow. What was once one person working off a single spreadsheet will likely become dozens of employees who need to be able to share information across multiple facilities. 

The digital side of the equation comes into play when those teams need visibility and data normalization for collaborating and spotting potential issues before they become problems. Software solutions are now available that can consolidate, automate, and analyze information; push it to the cloud; and make it shareable so sustainability teams can stay ahead of issues. To achieve the kind of energy management and emissions control needed to stay ahead of regulation, data centers will ironically need to adopt more digital solutions. Spreadsheets with opportunities for human error and limited processing power will not be adequate for the kind of sustainability strategies required to stay ahead of regulations and move the needle on greenhouse gas emissions. 

Taking action now has the potential to head off major environmental problems associated with the industry, and will help keep regulation to a minimum. The demand for digital services is only going to increase and data centers are required to enable the innovation and connectivity of modern life. Commerce, education, health care, and entertainment all depend on a stable digital infrastructure and the future of life on this planet requires data centers that can provide this sustainably. It is the convergence of IT and OT that will drive down wasted energy and reduce emissions.