The Greenest Data Center is the One That’s Never Built

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On the heels of a pandemic, and with current global markets for data capacity skyrocketing, the data center industry must use every means possible to reduce its carbon emissions.

The old adage – reduce, reuse, and recycle – transcends a consumer public service campaign and is actually shaking the data center industry to its core. That environmental slogan is now an industry pillar – and the implications are wide and deep for energy-intensive buildings and environments such as data centers.

Frankly, there’s a good bit of greenwashing going on, as there is in many industries during a time when sustainability makes for good public relations. But some organizations are truly investing in creative solutions, such as modernizing legacy structures rather than building new ones. This route expands capacity and delivers embodied and substantial carbon savings – up to 88% – compared to the material carbon cost of new projects.

To analyze the carbon savings potential from the modernist of an existing facility, HKS, an independent design firm, calculated the carbon cost of using an existing Chicago data center compared with a new build of the same scale. The analysis compared an enterprise accessing 1MW of power through the construction of a new facility versus sourcing that same MW from a modernized pre-existing data center.

The results: when comparing “embodied” carbon savings, it would mean an extra four years of operation before an enterprise adds to its carbon footprint in the modernization case (accounting for both operational and embodied). In this case, “embodied carbon” is the CO2 emission associated with the manufacture, transport, construction, maintenance and end of life/disposal of a product or service.


Until recently, a data center was commonly viewed as a 20–25-year asset. Hyperscale data centers were considered to carry an even shorter life span. Current industry-watchers are rejecting this, under the rubric that wherever possible, existing data centers can and should be modernized with the latest efficient electrical and mechanical equipment. By extension, those data centers should be operated for maximum efficiency using DMaaS (Data Center Management as a Service) solutions, which encompass advanced monitoring techniques.

Embodied Carbon Report

Many of those same industry-watchers understand that data center investments operate in a broader environmental context that is seeing the world economy shift onto a greener, more sustainable footing. In fact, the embodied carbon cost of buildings represents almost 40% of all annual global greenhouse emissions, according to a report by the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction. “These emissions can be divided into two categories, building operations and building materials / construction. Each represents the operational carbon and the embodied carbon of buildings, respectively,” says HKS.

In another recent study, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) reports that “In the building life cycle embodied carbon is the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the non-operational phase of the project.” The UKGBC continued in its analysis: ‘this includes emissions caused by extraction, manufacture, transportation, assembly, maintenance, replacement, deconstruction, disposal, and end of life aspects of the materials and systems that make up a building. The whole life carbon of the building is both the embodied carbon and the carbon associated with operations (heating, cooling, powering, providing water, etc.).”

For data center industry watchers and players, understanding the relationships between ‘embodied’ carbon and ‘operational’ carbon can assist in determining the overall optimum carbon reductions.’ They also understand the role of efficient DMaaS processes in streamlining workflow and stemming outages or down-time, both vital to a well-tuned and carbon-friendly data center.

In the future, all data centers will be operating as part of the circular economy – where waste is continually reduced, efficiency increased, and the whole of life carbon and GHG cost of everything is measured.


The European Union green deal is a set of proposals to create a greenhouse gas net neutral economy across Europe by 2050. It also promises strict enforcement of energy efficiency targets. In the United States, there’s the movement toward a green bill that would apply a similar efficiency target. Parts of that initiative were outlined in the Deuremocratic party platform, as the Democratic Party unveiled a plan which includes “a clean energy standard for net-zero electricity by 2040 and net-zero new buildings by 2030.”

To the data center executive and the enterprise IT department making decisions about data centers, the movement toward a circular, reduce-renew-reuse economy will further encourage users to think about what the facility was before and what it could be in the future.

The industry is trending toward a shared organizational ethos that evaluates the costs and value of reusing materials and infrastructure. Along the way, individual data centers may discover that sustainability and profitability are always at odds in industrial environments where approaches to carbon and other GHGs are built on openness and transparency on infrastructure efficiency, all along aiding enterprises to make informed decisions.

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