The True Cost of a Data Centre… and what to do about it

Many of the tech giants are ahead of the curve when it comes to green energy. Press reports have praised the efforts of Apple, Google and Facebook in bringing forward green energy innovation to power data centres. However, we have to ask ourselves if energy usage is the whole story when it comes to sustainable data storage in an increasingly digitalised future.

Hard won hardware

Running a data centre requires a lot of energy, but so does making one. Computer chips have a high environmental impact relative to their weight, as discovered in a 2002 Study:


“The total weight of secondary fossil fuel and chemical inputs to produce and use a single 2-gram 32MB DRAM chip are estimated at 1600g and 72g, respectively.”1


Increasing coverage and faster refresh rates

Although Cisco and International Data Corporation predicted the number of data centres worldwide would peak at approximately 8.6 million in 2017, the area they cover was set to increase. 2018 will see around 1.94 billion square feet, around a 23% increase from 2013.


Within this space, equipment replacements are carried out at much faster rates than they have ever been. A chairman of the Green Grid has commented,


“When I started out in the industry 20 years ago at IBM, if someone bought a server or system it would last you three to five years. The refresh rates we’re talking about now across the entire industry are around eight to 12 months. It is unsustainable.”


The problems with recycling

Technology has not advanced far enough to recover all raw materials from electrical waste. One ton of circuit boards contains 30-40 times as much copper than a ton of copper ore. For gold, it’s 40-80 times. There are a host of valuable materials contained in data centre equipment.


However, a recycler will be forced to make a choice between which metal they decide to recover because they cannot retrieve both at the same time. Oftentimes, the company will make the decision of the quantity contained in the equipment and the current market price.


Turning a good profit in this situation is more complicated than it might first appear. For one thing, the materials list will vary according to component, manufacturer and generation. What goes into each part is considered proprietary information by those that make them, so recyclers don’t know what they have until they test it in the lab. If they accept a one ton load, it is often a bit of a lottery when it comes to the value they will be able to retrieve from it.


Many materials on the EU Critical Raw Materials (CRM) list, targeted by policymakers for their rarity or difficulty in sourcing them worldwide, are in IT equipment. The problem is that the quantity is so minuscule that they are often obliterated by the processing for more valuable resources. There is currently research underway to improve CRM recovery from consumer IT goods, but it is in its early stages. The results are not due out until mid-2018. 


This means reuse is a much more valuable solution. A ton of servers is worth at least 4 times more when refurbished and resold than when it is sold for scrap. However, depletion of metal and mineral resources tends to be largely ignored by the big data centre owners, who focus instead on renewable power supplies.

Sun, Wind and Water

Microsoft’s 2017 report publicises a commitment to using 50% wind, solar, and hydropower electricity in its data centres and campus by the end of 2018, 60% early next decade, and to continue growing that percentage moving forward. Facebook, similarly, focuses on its footprint in terms of carbon intensity and CO2 emission. Apple’s 2017 environmental responsibility report points to an 80 percentage point rise in renewable energy use in corporate offices, stores and data centres.

The Circular Solution

Google that has publicly stated it has introduced sustainability into hardware supply and management. In 2016 it released a report with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, called The Circular Economy At Work in Google Data Centres. It detailed Google’s use of refurbished servers and components in its data centres. 75% of components consumed in Google’s spares programme in 2015 were refurbished inventory, 19% of servers Google deployed were remanufactured machines, and 52% of components consumed in its Machine Upgrades program were refurbished inventory.


Kate Brandt, Sustainability Lead, has publicly stated that using refurbished equipment saves the company money.

“We’re saving hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Not only is it really effective from a resource efficiency perspective but there is a really strong business case.”

Google is not doing this exclusively for the bottom line, although the cost savings are significant. It is adopting these methods because they are the smartest solution for short-term economics and long-term resource efficiency.


Applying the Big Idea to the rest of us

Google refurbishes the equipment in-house and redeploys it using algorithms to optimise efficiency. Yet there is no reason why much smaller companies cannot replicate the model on a smaller scale. The way to do this is to partner with the right buyers and sellers of refurbished equipment. Top quality refurbished products, identical to brand new in terms of functionality and customer guarantee, can save up to 80% on the RRP of new equipment. Some companies will even buy back or trade in old equipment, using internationally recognised data wiping software to erase data free of charge.


This is great news because the smart business choice is not just ethical but good for the pocket too.



William, E.D., Ayres, R.U., Heller M. (2002). The 1.7 Kilogram Microchip: Energy and Material Use in the Production of Semiconductor Devices. Environmental Science and Technology, 36, pp. 5504-5510.