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Energy-hungry data centres present net-zero hurdle

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Data centre capacity in the Middle East is set to treble, and there is pressure to reduce their carbon footprints
  • Expanding GCC tech sector
  • Emissions must halve by 2030
  • Greening initiative set up by indsutry

Soaring demand for GCC data centres is creating a headwind against the region’s decarbonisation efforts, and energy use will accelerate if no interventions are made, experts say. 

“With expected digital growth in the GCC, new data centres will need to be built, increasing energy usage,” said Ziad Al Bawaliz, president of Turkey, Middle East & Africa at Danish energy company Danfoss.

“While much work has been done to optimise data centre power usage, this has plateaued over the past decade. As data centres grow in scale, so will the need to improve their overall sustainability.” 

In the past decade, the number of internet users worldwide has doubled and internet traffic has increased 25-fold, according to a report last month by the International Energy Agency. 

GCC governments are investing in expanding their technology sectors. Dubai’s digital economy is expected to grow to $140 billion in 2031 from $38 billion today, driven by increased application of artificial intelligence and other technologies, says the Dubai Chamber of Commerce. 

To support digitalisation, data centre capacity in the Middle East’s three largest markets – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – is forecast to double over the next two years to 707MW, according to consultancy CBRE.

Data centres are expected to come under pressure to reduce their carbon footprints.

“There will be an increased focus on water usage, heat re-use, moving away from use of diesel generators, and making data centres an integral part of communities,” Al Bawaliz said. 

Twenty years ago, the global data centre industry began focusing on power usage effectiveness, which measures the amount of power used on non-IT equipment, such as cooling and lighting.

There has also been a trend towards moving data centres to colder climates to cut the need for mechanical cooling – “not so easy in the GCC”, Al Bawaliz said. 

Rapid improvements were made between 2007 and 2013, and average power usage effectiveness fell from around 2.5 to 1.47 in the last decade, according to the Uptime Institute. However, since 2018, the numbers have been ticking back up and have largely stagnated.

Data centres and data transmission networks each account for just 1-1.5 percent of global electricity use, but to get on track with a net zero 2050 scenario, emissions must drop by half by 2030, noted the International Energy Agency.

In the region, more effort must be made to "green" the sector as demand grows, said Vinoth Muruganantha, general manager for GCC & Turkey at DEIF, a global supplier of power control products. 

The GCC data centre industry "is set to continually grow, either through the building of new facilities or expansion of existing operations,” he said.

“With expansion comes the need for more power, which drives emissions – be it from the data halls themselves or incoming and back-up power demand.

“So, while data centre emissions have not historically been high until now, with exponential growth they will need to absorb energy efficiency at a much higher rate to stay low.”  

Advancements in cooling technology, batteries, solar power, storage and micro-energy grids will help, as will stronger government and industry policy on procurement and tech research and development, Muruganantha added.  

Last month, Danfoss, Google, Microsoft and Schneider Electric founded an initiative called Net Zero Innovation Hub for Data Centres, headquartered in Denmark and aimed at speeding up the industry’s green transition.