Stavros Spyropoulos, Business Development Manager – Africa Region at Subzero Engineering, talks to us about greener, reliable and replicable solutions for data centres in Africa.
We all know the data centre industry, with high energy-intensive users, is looking to meet net zero goals. To achieve this, it needs reliable and replicable solutions around greener energy. The landscape in Africa is very different to Western Europe, with its increased external heat temperatures making it significantly harder to keep data centres cool. With this in mind, the industry has to look towards technology that provides a balance between both energy efficiency and the data centre’s operational needs. It is not unusual to walk into a data centre in Africa and find not only the chillers working at 100 percent, but also air conditioning (A/C) units working full time to make the working environment more bearable within the hall itself. As costs increase, this is becoming more and more unsustainable. Plus, as more global companies continue to invest in Africa, their commitments to net zero also need to be taken into consideration, putting more pressure on the data centre.
There are many reasons for this. For one, ageing energy infrastructure in some countries means there is an overreliance on oil generators meaning operators need to look at more reliable sources. If you take Kenya as an example, it hosts the largest wind farm in Africa, Turkana Wind Farm. The wind farm covers 160 square kilometres (40,000 acres) and has a capacity of 310 megawatts (MW), enough to supply one million homes. 90 percent of all of Kenya’s electricity is generated from renewable sources, such as wind and geothermal. However, in South Africa there is still a reliance on thermal power meaning it currently has a large carbon footprint.
Another thing to consider is the abundance of solar. As you can imagine, Africa is currently seeing a fast-growing solar energy infrastructure. Morocco is currently home to Africa’s biggest solar project and South Africa now hosts eight of the largest solar plants in the world. Once you take this and future projects across the continent into account, it is not hard to see how green energy may be the answer to achieve net zero whilst significantly reducing energy costs.
THE CLIMATE-NEUTRAL STATUS CHALLENGE
There exists a very real opportunity to go back to the drawing board and decide what a data centre should look like in terms of location, energy supply, connectivity options, design and construction, power and cooling – virtually every aspect of the supply chain, with the obvious caveat that there are significant business challenges in the region.
Financing projects is the first obstacle to be overcome, although market entrants with a track record (and finances to match) in established markets are less exposed to this issue. There is also the question of sourcing the appropriate level and quantity of skilled labour at all stages of a data centre project. Supply chain logistics across the continent can be challenging and we can’t avoid mentioning the geopolitical instabilities which can cast a shadow over the data centre opportunity. However, set against these possible drawbacks, the sheer size and scale of the African data centre market is so enormous that it’s inevitable that the increasing trickle of activity will become more of a torrent over the next few years.
Whilst there is an enormous push towards new build projects, there are still a number of legacy data centres that need to be taken into account. As these have grown over time, a lot from telco providers for example, it has created a very complex environment where not only are they inefficient, but the buildings and infrastructure have not always been designed with these things taken into consideration. These facilities are then being repurposed for enterprise/hyperscale clients and as such needs to be upgraded to be able to serve these markets. This is where services such as computational fluid dynamics (CFD) evaluations can become crucial for data centres. Data centre operators can learn how to optimise their facilities by discovering how to improve their airflow mix, how to reduce the use of their chillers and, through specially designed containment, how they can become overall more energy efficient.
THE FUTURE OF THE AFRICAN DATA CENTRE MARKET
The African region is complex and does not have a one size fits all with its 54 countries. There are nearly 2,000 languages spoken and over 80 percent of the population does not currently have access to electricity. This same population is starting to mature in its need for digital services, be it consumer or enterprise. Over 70 percent of the population in many African countries is under 35, so the demand for all things digital is growing at a fast rate.
Underlying all this data centre market activity is, of course, the unstoppable momentum of digital transformation. Consumers demand ever higher levels of digital performance, and this means that the data centre industry is having to respond to meet this demand. In practical terms, this means more data centre capacity, faster connectivity options and higher compute densities. At the same time, environmental pressures, with net zero as the end target, are adding a layer of expectation to data centre owners and operators.
The good news is that the industry is responding successfully to this twin digital and sustainability challenge, with operational agility and technology innovation very much at the fore. Add in the burgeoning secondary/regional/edge market and there is, perhaps, no better example of how all of these factors are shaping the global data centre industry than in Africa right now.