The Tech Capital

The Tech Capital's Special Article

‘Never sacrifice quality for speed’: Balancing green destinations and near-term AI data centre demand with Data4 – part 2

In an industry as vast as the data centre space, it can be all too tempting to succumb to complacency and blindly expand operations based solely on overhyped market projections. But who should shoulder the blame? After all, this sector of real estate has been experiencing exponential growth, with projections indicating this trend will continue in the years to come, albeit starting from a lower availability standpoint compared to more established verticals. However, despite its seemingly positive reputation, there are certain destinations that are not yet equipped to accommodate such facilities. As the demand for AI intersects with the imperative of sustainability, we embark on a captivating exploration of how the strategic selection of data centre locations is being addressed. Join us in part two of this enthralling journey as we delve into the world of green AI data centres, featuring the board of French operator Data4, comprising Marie Chabanon, François Sterin, and Adam Levine.

By João Marques Lima

Founder and Editor, The Tech Capital

12 Mins

September 13, 2023 | 12:07 AM BST

In recent years, the expansion of data centres has been nothing short of remarkable, surpassing all expectations. However, in the midst of this colossal growth, a pressing concern has emerged: the urgent need to mitigate the environmental impact of these sprawling facilities. In response, operators have diligently implemented an array of best practices, meticulously engineered to curtail and regulate the alarming spikes in energy consumption.

Foremost among these practices is the strategic design of buildings, carefully crafted with a virtuous approach that aims to reign in the insatiable appetite for cooling power. This entails the meticulous optimisation of facility layouts and the resolute adoption of cutting-edge cold aisle containment solutions, specifically tailored to accommodate the formidable demands of high-density environments.

“When it comes to designing a data centre, my first rule is to never sacrifice quality for speed,” says François Sterin, Chief Operating Officer at Data4. “The top priority should always be creating an infrastructure that will stand the test of time, and skipping over something in the early stages will only lead to trouble later on. However, with the rapidly changing technological landscape, it is impossible to predict what will become possible over the next few years. As such, it is important that data centres are designed with maintenance and updates in mind, to allow for the seamless introduction of new technology.”

Additionally, as part of its Operations/Sustainability 22 roadmap, Data4 has begun exploring the possibility of replacing standard fuel with hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO).

“Made from 100% renewable resources, HVO is compliant with the EU’s renewable energy directive – and several of our future data centres in France will be operating using it as soon as they come online,” Marie Chabanon, chief technical officer says.

“While we are studying the feasibility of rolling HVO out across other territories, we are confident in its ability to help reduce our generators’ carbon footprints by up to 90%.”

Moreover, Data4 uses a global method of measurement and life cycle analysis to optimise the environmental performance of its data centres. This approach has led to “significant breakthroughs” in reducing water consumption and increasing energy efficiency.

According to Chabanon, across the group’s sites, water consumption has always been low, and in some centres, water has been completely replaced with free cooling methods. This is of special significance for the continent as Europe has been facing an ever-warmer climate and heatwaves which place several of the countries where Data4 operates under draught almost every year.

“We have also found that concrete contributes to a massive 40% of our carbon footprint. In response, we launched a low-carbon concrete roadmap, exploring ways of reducing concrete’s environmental impact,” she explains.

As the demand for data centres continues to surge, operators are faced with the challenge of scaling up their operations while maintaining high standards of service and design. One of the key aspects of this scaling process is the construction of new data centres itself, a key part of the conversation that often goes unnoticed.

To support sustainable growth, Data4 has embraced new digital design processes. According to its executives, these processes begin from the initial stages of each project and extend through to construction and beyond. This approach ensures quick time-to-market and compliance with evolving regulations while keeping costs low and maintaining high quality.

Part of this is also the wider supply chain and circular industries that service the data centre. In this field, Data4 takes a holistic approach to supply chain review and strategy. The company has a selection process for its suppliers and partners, ensuring they meet its competency and financial requirements. Moreover, these partners must be able to grow with the company, share its values, and align with its sustainability goals therefore creating a circular sustainable development approach to every project.

Ultimately, all these efforts are recognised by international standards of sustainability. For example, since 2019, and using the different approaches mentioned above, every new Data4 data centre has been built to meet the specifications of the Building Research Establishment (BRE). To achieve BREEAM certification, sustainability goes far beyond just energy efficiency. It also comprises nine further requisite criteria including materials, waste, land use, pollution, management, health, well-being, transport, and water.

As the digital landscape continues to evolve, companies like Data4 will play a pivotal role in shaping a sustainable digital future.

“Data centre growth is an inevitability that we ultimately have little control over. What we can control, however, is how we enable this growth,” Sterin says.

“Operators who prioritise scaling at the expense of their people, the quality of their offering, or their climate strategies might experience quick short-term gains, but only those who encompass all these considerations at once will be able to achieve sustainable data centre growth for the future.”

Location-based growth

To date, Data4 has created, planned, and put into operation 31 data centres across Europe. The company has a presence in France, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Spain and soon Germany. The group is currently undergoing a large rollout of new infrastructure with the aim to push its capacity portfolio to 1GW across the continent.

When looking at a location to expand operations into, the sustainability and renewable energy piece alongside the hyperscale ecosystem, are the two main ingredients, according to chief commercial officer Adam Levine.

He says: “What we are seeing today is obviously a lot of saturated markets like Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Dublin… Saturated in terms of power; saturated in terms of available land in key areas that is pushing demand out.

“On the back of that, we are seeing deals being done in the Nordics, where there is an abundance of renewable energy, and even in Southern Europe, which historically has not been a place to put agnostic workloads. But there is power available.

“What is going to happen is that your workloads are changing as well, right? We are seeing a shift into a new phase of AI workloads which have different technical requirements. To that end, we are going to see countries and markets chasing hyperscalers because, effectively, they create demand and hosting ecosystems since they are going to be chasing more renewable and sustainable solutions in the longer term.

“But in the short term, they are just going to go where the power is. We are all following the hyperscalers, but we are trying to be ahead of the game as well and seeing where we can build those [new facilities] and where can we get the power, where can we get the longer-term sustainable solutions.”

Here, hyperscalers with their AI focus drive much of the caravan too. In the latest Wall Street results season, mentions of AI rocketed in the earnings calls of hyperscalers. Google owner, Alphabet, mentioned AI 65 times in its Q2 earnings call, Meta said it 56 times, and Microsoft 53. The big tech companies know their AI platforms and suites rely heavily on finding “green destinations” where sustainability is the keyword.

“Sustainability is a word we hear and use all the time,” observes Levine. “The way we are building now [as an industry], we cannot keep doing so. We are going to run out of resources. It is essential for the survival of the industry and the wider planet [especially as these heavy workloads pop up a bit everywhere].

“Obviously for us to keep making those longer-term solutions and trying to anticipate where that workload is going to go, both geographically but also in technical and technology terms.”

The race towards building a sector which in the bigger picture is still nascent is truly on. Beyond the many headlines of continued growth and forecasts of extreme capital expenditure, which is never enough to satisfy consumer demand, data centres are truly well-positioned as the beacons of economic empowerment, development and, we hope, equality.

The widespread consumption of AI products and platforms like we have witnessed in the last 12 months is creating as much business as it is generating opportunities across the board to ensure we build green, we build with and for AI, we built planet-first.

Renewables Rising

To further reduce its ecological footprint, it has become commonplace amongst data centre players that the electricity used in data centres is outsourced from 100% renewable energy. At Data4, for example, this practice has been in place on the Milan campus since July 2017 and on the Paris-Saclay campus since January 2018.

The organisation strives to use ambient air for cooling. On the Paris-Saclay campus, the integration of Direct Free Cooling technology allows the company’s data centres to cool computer equipment on average 85% of the time, the firm claims. To further minimise its environmental impact, Data4 bans greenhouse gases in its fire protection systems and promotes the use of nitrogen and water mist.

The company also provides a green dashboard for its customers. The D4 Green Dashboard, a tool that allows customers to calculate their environmental contribution based on four criteria: energy, CO2, water, and rare earths including freshwater eutrophication. Calculating this contribution takes account of the three stages of the life cycle (construction, operation and end-of-life) and the customer’s IT infrastructure as well as the building infrastructure in which it is located.

The D4 Green Dashboard currently serves two specific goals. This includes sharing Certificates of Guarantee of Origin – documents that prove that for each kWh of electricity consumed by server activity, energy suppliers will provide the grid with 1 kWh of electricity from renewable sources -, and calculate and share the LCA of users’ IT infrastructure hosted in data centres, including each customer’s share in a specific building infrastructure, specifically the share of power and cooling

used by their IT equipment.

The company defends that understanding the environmental impact of data centres makes it easier to take action to reduce your environmental footprint. Ultimately, it is about measuring – before defining and validating an efficient action plan, operators should start with measurements -, managing – implement concrete technical solutions to reduce the environmental impact of new and existing data centres – and controlling the assets energy usage – through the usage of KPIs to measure the efficiency of the actions implemented.

As the demand for AI data centres continues to grow, it is crucial to strike a balance between meeting this demand and prioritising environmental sustainability. By implementing strategic building designs, operators can effectively control energy consumption and reduce their ecological impact.

The journey towards green AI data centres is an ongoing one, but with the right practices and technologies in place, the industry can move closer to achieving – and building – a more sustainable future. There is no Planet B.

This piece is part of a two-part special covering the development of AI green data centres developed by operator Data4. To read more on environmental stewardship, energy efficiency and market use and demand, please visit part one here.


Daily Brief

A morning briefing on what you need to know in the day ahead, including exclusive commentary from Tech Capital's writers

Login or Register to comment on this article

Listen to this article
Share this article
More From

João Marques Lima

Founder and Editor, The Tech Capital

Related Articles
Most Read & Watched

The Tech Capital



Sign up for The Tech Capital's newsletters. Be the first to know and get our most compelling stories delivered straight to your inbox.