Data Center Sustainability Metrics to Use at Every Stage of Your Journey

Uncovering the benefits of Sustainability tracking

In the ongoing debate over data center sustainability, one side claims digital transformation is accelerating at such a rapid pace that data centers pose a potentially serious environmental risk from energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, waste of obsolete equipment, and water use. The other side counters this claim, saying data center operators have been engaged in sustainability efforts for years! The industry uses a considerable amount of electricity, but is also the most advanced in using renewable energy sources and Energy Attribute Credits (EACs), minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and water usage, and boosting the use of circular materials.  

So, which side is right? 

As we all know, unsubstantiated claims don’t win debates. Both sides could prove or defend their position with data in the form of metrics—measures of quantitative assessment used for comparing and tracking performance. However, which metrics should be used in the data center industry is unclear. It’s become commonplace for companies to present favorable metrics. For example, “We have reduced greenhouse gas emission 20% over the last three years.” This claim may be fantastic or terrible depending on the starting point or the actual emissions. For example, what if this company started from a high baseline and is still emitting an enormous amount of greenhouse gasses?

As Philip Sheldrake said, “Don’t measure what you can. Measure what you should.” For data centers operators, there are no organizations or standards bodies recommending comprehensive sustainability metrics reporting, as is done in financial reporting with balance sheets and income statements. It’s a serious problem in need of a well-thought-out solution, and Schneider Electric is taking the initial steps toward that solution with our latest publication, A Guide to Environmental Sustainability Metrics for Data Centers. We have worked across the data center industry and associations to create five categories and 23 suggested metrics.

I liken it to a financial balance sheet. With this approach, every business will use the same format for the same categories and line items in their reporting. This will ensure companies are inclusive in their reporting (no gaps), use appropriate units of measurement, and organize in an understandable and established way.

We understand that companies are at different levels of sustainability tracking. This guidance offers a level system of Beginning, Advanced, and Leading to address that. Beginning companies will report on Energy Use, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Water Utilization. The 11 metrics for this level are a mix of measured values, like GHG emissions in mtCO2e and ratios like Carbon usage effectiveness (CUE) in mtCO2e/kWh. Advanced metrics bring in the Waste category and Leading metrics include additional categories for Land and Biodiversity. 

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