High-emission businesses that haven’t made the switch to friendlier power sources are coming under mounting pressure to finally cut down on the CO2 they’re pumping out. This is regardless of the type of business, and it certainly includes data centers.

As our lives are becoming increasingly connected, and especially with the onset of the Internet of Things, we’re gobbling up staggering amounts of data. This means bigger data centers and more of them, which in turn means more power.

"Data centers can consume up to 100 times more energy than a standard office building," says the US Department of Energy.

Along with the EPA, the DoE devised the Energy Star certification, which measures everything from fridges to hair dryers, and added its own requirements for data centers just last year.

Energy Star guidelines for more efficient energy usage in data centers include tips for arranging stacks to allow better airflow, which will reduce cooling demands, and decommissioning comatose servers ("15% to 30% of the equipment running in your data center consumes electricity without doing any computing").

Elsewhere, a study from Stanford University, published last year, surveyed many data centers and found that most facilities can reduce emissions by up to 88 percent by switching to renewable energy.

Legislation Drives Data Centers to Alternatives

Initiatives like Energy Star have been praised, but they remain voluntary. National, municipal and local governments have endeavored to find ways of reducing CO2 emissions.

California enacted laws saying that the state must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and then 80 percent below that by 2050, ideally reducing emissions by two to three percent every year. This puts more pressure on industries that haven’t made the move to renewable energy yet, but Stanford researchers have claimed that California, the most populous state, is on track.

Furthermore in March 2014, the US passed the Energy Efficiency Improvement Act, which puts federal data centers under obligation to use green and renewable energy.

According to Data Center Mapping, there are 321 data centers in California, the most of any state in the US. RagingWire’s Sacramento colocation data center is one of the largest in the state at 500,000 square feet, and through new initiatives is now saving eight million kWh of energy a year and reducing its CO2 emissions by 6,000 tons, by retrofitting the facility with energy efficient systems.

The end result has seen the Sacramento site gain the first Energy Star Building Designation, which recognized its efforts. Elsewhere in the US, Facebook’s facility in Altoona, Iowa is powered completely by wind.

"In addition to voluntary green certifications like LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] and Energy Star, what we’ve seen in the data center industry is an aggressive focus on efficiency, with many data centers far exceeding the requirements of legal or regulatory directives," says Corey Welp, Managing Director of 1547 Critical Systems Realty. "In fact, many data centers are taking a leadership position to mitigate the resource-intensive nature of their business. We’re seeing innovation in nearly every area of new construction and significant retrofitting in existing builds."

Europe and the Action on Climate

The EU’s Action on Climate is similarly aiming to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 with the ultimate goal of lowering GHGs a further 80 percent by 2050.

Throughout Europe, there are a number of high-power data centers currently churning away at our information, most notably Microsoft’s Dublin facility, which has a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.25. This compares to the 2.0 average that Microsoft claims is common.

Action on Climate’s goals are very broad, affecting industries and going all the way down to the individual. There are currently no specific guidelines for data centers, but that appears primed to change.

Different countries and local authorities have tried various methods. In Amsterdam, planning permission is restricted for proposals to build data centers that have a PUE above 1.3. In the UK there is the Climate Change Agreement between operators and government. Facilities larger than 200kW receive tax breaks on energy consumption under the condition that they reduce their PUE by 15 percent by 2020.

"Unlike the planning restrictions approach taken by the Dutch, the UK has enabled all data centers to benefit from becoming more efficient, going beyond just new builds," says Ian Bitterlin, Technical Work Group EMEA Vice-Chair at The Green Grid, a nonprofit aiming to make data centers more sustainable. "This works because a large part of the UK’s data center estate was constructed in the mid to late '90s and has become creaky when it comes to energy efficiency."

RenewIT meanwhile is an EU-funded project, which reported in June of last year that the union was considering a new framework of regulation on data centers for the future. "If new rules are introduced, it could help encourage data centers to make more use of renewable sources of energy and cooling," says RenewIT.

RenewIT is currently developing a number of technologies and algorithms for data centers that will make it easier to move to and manage sustainable technology.

Location, Location, Location

Google has three facilities in Europe, located in Ireland, Belgium and Finland. In Hamina, Finland, the facility makes use of water from the Bay of Finland for cooling systems, the "first of its kind anywhere in the world," according to Google. Similarly, the data center in St. Ghislain, Belgium draws water from a nearby industrial canal. Dublin, Ireland’s facility makes use of an air-cooling system "that takes advantage of Ireland’s weather" and does away with the need for air-conditioning units.

That’s a tech giant like Google, though. One would assume they have the easy bank to build facilities like this, but others are on board too.

Just last year Portugal saw the opening of Portugal Telecom’s newest facility in the city of Covilhã. It is equipped with an air conditioning system, but Portugal Telecom says it only plans to use the system for about six days a year, rather it will rely on rainwater collection for cooling. Meanwhile, the facility uses 1,600 photovoltaic panels for power, but this will only generate 30 percent of its energy.

We’re now seeing the growth of data centers powered by renewables by more than 50 percent, and sometimes 100 percent. Next Generation Data (NGD) in Wales, which includes clients like telco BT, currently runs one of the world’s largest data centers and runs off a private connection powered by wind and tidal energy, being the UK’s fully green-powered data center. Elsewhere, World Back Ups in the UK built its first solar-powered facility in 2010 in North Wiltshire.

There are many obstacles facing companies looking to build data centers. In summer 2014, the University of Delaware killed off plans for a new $1billion data center over GHG emission concerns.

Price of land remains an issue too, with Microsoft recently paying six times the normal price of land in Iowa, the same state that’s home to one of Facebook’s centers, so could land for data centers become pricier in Iowa?

As cooling remains one of the hardest issues for data centers, expect more companies to look to new places with cooler climates and ideal resources. "It’s best to locate the data center in a cooler climate such as the Northern United States, perhaps even on a mountain," says CEO of Additive Analytics, Laura Hamilton, as much higher elevations are cooler than sea level. Meanwhile, Iceland has begun to prove popular with companies thanks to its climate and geothermal power sources.

"Locating a facility on the equator is madness because you’d be cooling from ambient temperature of roughly 81 ºF [27 ºC]," says Brian Reynolds, of Climate Money Policy. "A data center in Iceland however needs to be cooled from an average temperature of 39 ºF [4 ºC]." These concerns put a greater demand on companies to plan their locations better for the future.

There are few large tech companies that have made the full switch to green for 100 percent of their operations, but with political and legal pressure always growing, soon data centers big and small will have no choice in the matter.