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Google says ‘circular economy’ needed for data centres

11 Dec 2018
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Speaking at last month’s TEDWomen conference, Google Sustainability Officer Kate Brandt highlighted what she called a ‘circular economy’.

Brandt is referring to how the animals, plants, and microbes of earth are effectively the consummate engineers of this planet, representing a circular system where waste doesn’t exist.

“Think of a tree that grows from the energy of the sun and the nutrients in the soil,” Brandt says.

“Eventually the tree falls and microorganisms, enzymes and bacteria begin to turn the tree back into the soil and nutrients that fuel the growth of new life in the forest. This is the genius of nature, the original circular economy.”

So in terms of what relevance this holds, Brandt believes the same principles can be applied to our modern economy.

“What if, like nature, everything was repurposed, reused and reborn for use again? What if instead of our current linear economy of take-make-waste we had a “circular economy” that mimicked this natural system? These questions aren’t just hypotheticals, they hold the key to our future,” Brandt says.

Earlier this year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report that revealed just how dire the environmental situation really is – we have just 12 years to make unprecedented changes to the entire global economy before the damage we have inflicted upon the planet will be irreversible.

Back to Brandt’s circular economy with a strong focus on value creation, a model she asserts could generate US$4.5 trillion of new economic output by 2030.

“We’re already putting this circular approach  into practice at Google, and it’s grounded in three principles: design out waste, keep products and materials in use and transition to renewable energy,” Brandt says.

Google currently owns and operates 14 data centres across four continents, with these facilities and the employees within them effectively the ecosystems that fuel Google’s progress.

“And it’s not just Google, it’s Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Baidu and more. Cloud and IT services are not immaterial, they are a growing part of our modern world embodied in millions of data centres. Like all industrial systems, millions of data centres means a significant need for natural resources and an urgency to find a new model for addressing growing demand for energy and materials,” says Brandt.

“Stepping into a data centre feels like the polar opposite of the dirt, decay, and life of the organic world. But it’s still a system—with inputs and outputs, much like the coastal forest of my childhood.”

It’s no secret that data centres consume significant amounts of energy.

“In 2017 Google’s total energy footprint was around 8 million megawatt hours; that’s roughly equivalent to the energy used by the city of Atlanta in one year. And that’s just Google,” Brandt says.

“Data centres worldwide use an estimated 200 terawatt hours each year. That is similar to the national energy consumption of some countries like Australia and roughly one percent of global electricity demand. The other major input into the system is hardware, mostly in the form of thousands of servers ultimately made up of raw materials like tin, gold and cobalt.”

So the question is, how can the circular economy principles apply to modern data centres?

Brandt has listed a few steps Google has implemented thus far:

  • Machine learning to optimise the cooling system controls, with data taken from sensors recording temperatures, power, and pump speeds to create an AI-powered efficiency recommendation system. “To date, this has produced a 30 percent reduction in energy use in the cooling system,” Brandt says.
  • A transition to renewable energy, with a commitment to match 100 percent of its energy use with renewable purchases. “In 2017, we purchased power from more than three gigawatts of wind and solar projects, more than the amount of energy it takes to power the city of San Francisco for a year,” Brandt says.
  • Keep products and materials in use, by designing everything for longevity, repairability, and disassembly for future use. “Today, we use components from old servers to upgrade machines and we build remanufactured machines with refurbished parts. Last year, Google sold more than 2.1 million units that we no longer had use for,” Brandt says.

Companies around the world are on their own journeys towards a circular economy, but it is certainly vital that big players like Google set a precedent.

“We believe global businesses like Google should lead the way in improving people’s lives, while reducing or even eliminating our dependence on raw materials and fossil fuels,” says Brandt.

“Together, I believe we can turn to the work of world’s most efficient engineers and reverse the global challenges created by a take-make-waste economy and create a circular world of abundance.”