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We spend a lot of time online – so how do we make data centres greener?

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • How to make data centres greener
  • Which country is closest to making a sustainable energy transition? 
  • Let your lawn grow longer — to help the bees

How to make data centres greener

(Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

Amid the lockdown, which is gradually lifting, most of us have been spending a lot of time at home. That means relying heavily on the internet to work, shop, do video calls with family and friends and stream TV shows.

As we’ve previously reported, that can have a pretty big carbon footprint, thanks to the energy-guzzling data centres that power the internet and the cooling needed to keep them from overheating. 

Data centres worldwide are expected to consume up to 651 terawatt hours of electricity this year — almost the same amount that Canada’s entire energy sector produces.

But data centres are trying to go greener. Big companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Google have made commitments to carbon neutrality. And there’s evidence the industry as a whole is improving. 

Here’s a look at some of the ways they’re doing that.

Using renewable energy

Obviously, harnessing wind or solar energy, for example, cuts down on the carbon emitted from power usage.

Both Google and Apple say they run their data centres on 100 per cent renewable energy. Amazon says it plans to go 100 per cent renewable by 2030, up from 40 per cent in 2019. And Microsoft announced in January that it aims to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits by 2030, partly by investing in carbon capture technologies.

But this is a trend even among smaller companies. For example, Canadian data centre provider Estruxture promotes its use of hydroelectric power from Hydro-Québec and says it focuses on maximizing its efficiency and minimizing the environmental impact of its data centres.

Greener cooling methods

According to the Uptime Institute, an advisory organization on IT service, some of the following cooling methods were behind the dramatic increases in average data centre energy efficiency that happened between 2007 and 2013. They include:

  • Separating hot and cold air, which eliminates hot spots and allows cooling systems to be safely set to a higher temperature.

  • “Free air cooling,” which uses cooler outside temperatures to chill water for the cooling system. Many data centres are now being located in cooler climates to take advantage of this.

Some data centres also use cold water for cooling, such as Frontier Networks, which uses Lake Ontario water to cool its Toronto data centre, and the bank DNB in Norway, which uses water from a nearby fjord.

Recycling heat

Around the world, including Canada, waste heat from data centres is being captured to heat homes and offices, as well as greenhouses and swimming pools. That reduces the net energy consumption of the data centre and the facility it’s heating.

More efficient technology

Using more energy-efficient server equipment can also make a big difference. That was one of the strategies used by IBM’s Canadian Leadership Data Centre in Barrie, Ont., which earned LEED gold certification from the Canada Green Building Council in 2014.

Many big companies such as Google and Amazon have improved efficiency by deploying “hyperscale” data centres, which are larger, more specialized and more efficient than traditional server farms.

Meanwhile, some technology companies, such as Ottawa-based Ranovus, aim to boost the speed and capacity of data transfers, reducing the amount of energy required to move the same amount of data.

For now, data centres use only half the electricity that’s being used for transport worldwide — and most of us haven’t been burning a lot of fuel for that lately.

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

In response to Anand Ram’s article last week on investment in green hydrogen, reader Chris Lyons had this to say:

“I just want to point out that your article about green hydrogen didn’t mention some very important Canadian work that is happening,” Lyons said, citing as an example Calgary-based Proton Technologies, which has been developing technology to produce green hydrogen from abandoned oilfields.

Lyons also wrote that “the problem of transporting hydrogen can’t be addressed without mentioning ammonia. Ammonia is one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms. It makes for a stable liquid for transporting hydrogen. Ammonia can easily be converted back into hydrogen or used directly as a fuel source.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Countries and the green energy transition

Although pandemic-related lockdowns have contributed to a steep reduction in carbon emissions worldwide this year, researchers warn that it’s likely to be temporary — and say that one of the most realistic ways to address global warming is to green the electrical grid. With that in mind, the World Economic Forum recently released the Energy Transition Index 2020, which measures which countries are furthest along in moving to a sustainable energy system. Sweden comes out on top, followed by Switzerland and Finland. The criteria is based not only on a high share of zero-emissions energy but also “a strong political commitment to transforming their energy sector to meet climate targets.” Of the 115 countries ranked, Canada finished 28th and was singled out thusly: “High energy-consuming countries including the U.S., Canada and Brazil show little, if any, progress towards an energy transition.”

energy transition by country top 10

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • When it comes to electric vehicles, Tesla tends to garner most of the headlines, but a top executive at General Motors announced earlier this week that the company’s engineers are close to developing a “million-mile” battery. (Most EV batteries currently last 100,000 to 200,000 miles or 160,934 kilometres to 321,868 kilometres.) 

  • Global warming is turning some of Antarctica green. While the presence of algae in the region was noted at least as far back as Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions in the early 1900s, recent satellite imagery shows the extent of the greening. According to the images, there are close to 1,700 separate algal blooms.

Let your lawn grow longer — to help the bees

bee on a lawn
(York University)

Like the hair on our heads during the coronavirus lockdown, conservationists are encouraging people to let their lawns grow a little wilder than usual this month.

That’s the idea behind the burgeoning No Mow May movement, which, as you might have guessed, is calling on homeowners to park their lawn mowers this month for the sake of local bees and other pollinators.

Organizers say doing so will help introduce much-needed biodiversity and more native flowering plants, both of which are sorely lacking but essential for healthy urban bee populations.

The U.K.-based conservation charity Plantlife, which is spearheading the initiative, says mowing your lawn just once a month can lead to a 10-fold increase in the number of bees pollinating the area.

“The sheer quantity of flowers and nectar production on lawns mown once a month can be astonishing,” said Trevor Dines, a botanical specialist at Plantlife.

The argument is backed up by a 2019 paper published by scientists at the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières, which found that “intensively managed” lawns have been shown to have “clear negative ecological effects,” especially in urban areas.

And while Canadians with more time on their hands might be itching to do some yard work as the weather improves, conservationists say wildlife would indeed benefit from a more widespread “no mow” philosophy.

“Trying to increase the diversity of your lawn is actually a great idea because it really is one of the largest areas of vegetation that’s within most of our urban areas,” said Dan Kraus, a senior conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Kraus said reduced mowing, fertilization and irrigation could eventually help introduce native species, such as wild strawberries, wild blue violets and trout lilies to more lawns.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada has previously led campaigns to stop people raking leaves in the fall for similar biodiversity purposes.

There’s hope that wider availability of native flowering plants could help local bee populations recover after what has been a decades-long decline for some species.

“Sadly, probably about at least a third of our species have disappeared or drastically declined,” said Victoria MacPhail, an environmental studies PhD student at York University in Toronto who specializes in bumblebees.

MacPhail helps run the citizen science project Bumble Bee Watch, where people around Canada can submit photos of bees to help scientists learn more about local populations.

She listed several species that were once common but are now rarely seen, if ever, in the Toronto area. The list includes the yellow-banded bumblebee, American bumblebee, yellow bumblebee and cuckoo bumblebee.

The rusty-patched bumblebee, once among the top five most common species, has essentially disappeared from the region.

While MacPhail acknowledged the critical role that homeowners can play in revitalizing some of those species, she added that truly helping bee populations will require more than just letting the grass get long.

“I really encourage people, if they want to help pollinators, to actually create habitat for them,” she said.

Nick Boisvert

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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