Can we build net zero data centers in Africa?

Despite recent investments in data center infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa, much of the continent’s capacity remains in South Africa, where local providers have brought more than 50MW of dedicated data center computing load capacity online. data between 2017 and 2019.

Data centers remain power hungry

The inevitable fact that data centers remain power-hungry adds further complexity. According to Gartner, approximately 10% of data center operating expenses are consumed by electricity costs. In Africa, unstable power supplies that are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels and increasingly expensive certainly pose a significant challenge for the data center industry.

Beyond the critical importance of a stable power supply, responsible corporate citizenship and adherence to environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices combine to put significant pressure on data center owners to that they serve the continent and ensure that Africa can keep pace with the rest of the world.

Obviously, increased capacity must be designed and built with a stable power supply and net-zero goals in mind. Energy efficiency management is key to achieving this. Because you can’t manage what you don’t measure, measuring energy use efficiency (PUE) has become a de facto industry standard for measuring how efficiently a data center uses energy. To improve efficiency, data centers should deploy heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) technology that will provide a low average annual PUE.

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Strategies to increase energy efficiency

A few years ago, the annual average CVC PUE was around 1.9. Current PUE figures hover around 1.5 and there are constant efforts to bring it down to 1.0. Incorporating free cooling, free heating, and operating equipment efficiency specifications into HVAC designs reduces annual energy use and lowers annual average PUE.

Another strategy for increasing a data center’s energy efficiency is to expand its internal temperature and humidity range and perform pre-planning to ensure ease of maintenance. It is also important to consider improving the power consumption of IT equipment by reducing the payload power it needs. Servers consume 60%, so further efficiency gains can be made by cleaning up server workloads and eliminating unnecessary usage, virtualizing more workloads, and replacing older servers and less effective by new ones.

Finally, data center owners need to optimize the physical space of the data center, especially for data centers that were built before server virtualization became commonplace. Less space required equals less cooling and therefore energy savings.

Alternative energy solutions

However, improvements in energy efficiency alone will not be enough to stabilize power supplies. In the urban context, renewable energy from rooftop solar PV panels can be integrated into a building to offset some of the data center’s dependence on the local grid. However, the electrical contribution from a rooftop solar microgrid would not be enough to meet the demand of an energy-hungry data center.

For this reason, we are seeing increased interest in alternative energy solutions which include a tri-generation plant using natural gas to power the data center and off-grid, with a backup diesel generator for downtime . For this, it is important to secure a site in a hotspot area with access to gas pipes to guarantee a constant supply.

While trigeneration and improving energy efficiency are all steps in the right direction, more thought needs to be given to renewables if the goal is net zero. Fortunately, Africa’s renewable energy generation potential is vast. The challenge is space, which is not readily available in urban centers.

Renewable energy plants and micro-grids

To reach net zero, data center owners could look to trends in other markets where to invest in renewable energy power plants and microgrids – such as a solar or wind farm for a large data center – s looks promising. In Africa, this approach opens up new opportunities to establish data centers in more remote areas of the continent that had not previously been considered due to a lack of infrastructure, but where space is more readily available. This approach powers the data center directly from its own stand-alone renewable energy supply, while benefiting from cleaner energy use and better carbon reduction.

In this context, the solar business case is particularly solid. South Africa, for example, receives over 2,500 hours of sunshine per year, with average solar radiation levels between 4.5 and 6.5 kWh/m2 in a single day. The country’s average solar radiation of around 220 W per square meter is more than double that of Europe (100 W/m2). Solar is therefore one of the most promising renewable energy options for reducing dependence on the grid. The North Cape has become a hotspot for solar power plant investment given the impressive potential for solar power generation in the region – and we have seen successful examples of solar-powered data centers being established in environments similar arid and desert type in other parts of the world.

Green building standards

Although there is currently no set of industry standards for building “green” data centers, with the global transition to net zero driving the need to reduce carbon emissions, we anticipate these standards becoming a reality in the data center industry in the future. We’ve seen the trend play out in other commercial real estate spaces where green building has become a requirement for most major developers.

This change will place greater emphasis on the role of architects and consulting engineers to continue to produce alternative and operationally cost-effective designs that reduce energy consumption, reduce carbon emissions and improve overall operational efficiency. new data center projects.


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