Four Innovation Imperatives for Sustainable IT

Roger Tipley


The Green Grid Association leverages subject matter experts from our member companies to develop goals, best practices, and informal industry standards to enable information technology (IT) to create a more sustainable world.

Sustainability definition as a Venn diagram

The United Nations Brundtland1 Report in 1987 defined sustainability as “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Various forms of the Venn diagram have been used to illustrate how sustainable practices must simultaneously meet human needs, environmental health, and deliver prosperity.

The desire for success in the three axes of sustainability inspires innovation in IT, both in pursuit of data center operational excellence and as a necessary ingredient in enabling sustainability in all sectors of business and society.

1. Industry Standards

“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it”
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin

At first glance, innovation and standards appear to mix as easily as olive oil and vinegar. Conventional wisdom posits that standards change too slowly and impede innovators. Dr. John Lienhard2 reminds us that inventions are often built upon available technologies. By combining this technology toolkit with known scientific laws and phenomena, combinations that were rendered moot in earlier technology waves can be shaken together to make the fine “vinaigrette” of innovation.

This sort of evolutionary innovation occurs by discovering the confluence of the scientifically possible and the economically practical. Industry standards define the specifications for most of the economically practical components and processes. Even revolutionary innovation often stands atop the shoulders of industry standards.

Illustrating the nimbleness possible in IT standards-making consortia, The Green Grid published Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) less than a month after its founding in 2007. Although it took almost nine years for PUE to be adopted as a formal international standard by both IEC and ISO, data center operators, equipment vendors, and even government-sponsored voluntary efficiency programs like ENERGY STAR, the EU Data Centre Code of Conduct, et al., adopted it as an informal industry standard in the span of a year or two.

Globally accepted IT industry standards like PUE (and hundreds of others) provide the means to measure and reward vendors that effectively keep up with the accelerating pace of technology waves of change and allow engineers to focus on quality, efficiency, sustainability, useful features, and at a macro-level, to enable managed energy-use reductions3 across all industries.

2. Good Regulations

“Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge”
Benjamin Franklin

Much like standards, regulations seem anathema to innovation. In a schoolyard without fences, school children will tend to play towards the center and away from the periphery, but in schoolyards with good fences, kids will play all over the enclosed area (feeling safe and creative enough to even climb on the fences).

Similarly, good regulations can create healthy boundaries to simultaneously protect citizens, the environment, and enterprises by setting legal boundaries and establishing a level, well-marked playing field. To develop fair regulations, governments must solicit both visionary and pragmatic feedback from a broad spectrum of stakeholder organizations like The Green Grid, to represent the interests of all three axes of sustainability.

3. Resource Recovery

“Away has gone away”
William McDonough

The concepts of a Circular Economy4 have been embraced by many governments as the means to promote pragmatic (and non-trademarked) steps towards some of the Cradle‑to‑Cradle5 concepts that were published by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart and challenge us to redesign our products, processes, and daily habits to expect non-toxic and infinitely re-usable materials with zero waste. McDonough and Braungart describe ideals, but are also realistic about encouraging the continuum of small improvements that do less bad and more good for the environment.

What if all water from cooling towers was recovered?
Water has 1,000 times the thermal conductivity of air, so energy use for cooling can be reduced with liquid cooling. Closed-loop liquid cooling, by its design, is intended to indefinitely reuse and conserve its liquid…which is usually water.

I would wager that almost 100% of the water used in the generation of electricity and in the cooling of data centers is conserved and is not lost from the planetary water cycle and global biome…but in most cooling towers, water is displaced from the local water supply through evaporation.

New metrics and expectations need to be created to encourage recovery and reuse of water in cooling towers and effluent. Water evaporated in the cooling towers of buildings and power plants may be reasonable in regions of water abundance, but valid concerns are raised regarding the impact of displacing water from regions of water scarcity or at higher altitudes, thus depriving downstream consumers’ reuse of that water resource. Chemical and temperature water quality of effluent can also have negative effects.

So, what metrics, standards, and/or incentives need to be developed to encourage more responsible use of water?

Is there such a thing as waste heat?
IT gear is almost 100% efficient at doing one thing: turning electrical energy into low-grade heat. While this heat is not high enough temperature to efficiently nor cost effectively convert it back into electricity, there are many synergistic uses for a “free” air supply of 30°C (86°F) air.

Several European cities have district heating infrastructures that happily take (and pay for) what would otherwise be “waste heat” and use it to warm homes, businesses, factories, and/or greenhouses. Common practice in the rest of the world would be to expel the heat into the atmosphere or downstream of the intake water source. Perhaps there are more innovative ways to reward synergistic uses of free “waste heat” (co-located micro-breweries, anyone?).

What is the next life for your IT gear?
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation inspires ideas for creating repair services and material reuse opportunities in the Circular Economy. CEN, CENELEC, and ETSI standards bodies in Europe are jointly taking the global lead in defining the standards6 by which product excellence will be measured in a Circular Economy.

Among the standards currently in development are those that measure such product attributes as durability, recyclability, reparability, reusability, removability, etc. Since European standards are often followed by directives and regulations, how might products need to fundamentally change and how should we advise balance or weighting for the competing Circular Economy attributes?

4. End-to-End Thinking

ΔU = Q + W
First Law of Thermodynamics

One of my most valuable courses in engineering school may have been thermodynamics (thank you, Dr. Zaworski and Dr. Mrazek at Oregon State). The holistic thinking required to grasp the seemingly simple First Law of Thermodynamics’ conservation of energy principle and the “aha” of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that shows that every energy conversion must result in some inefficiency losses in the form of heat.

From end to end, energy conversion losses are astonishingly high, losing 63% during the electricity generation process alone.8 Losses are minimal in the transmission and distribution of electricity, but once entering a building, regardless of its PUE score, a large percentage of its energy is lost in the reliable conversion of large AC voltages to the small DC voltages that power the transistors and storage devices that do the actual “work” in the data center and to cool the Joules and BTUs of heat that are created by all of the kilowatt-hours of electricity consumed.

Innovators pushing the state of the art may find many different answers to minimizing end-to-end energy use. The Green Grid has teams focused on energy efficiency of every part of IT and data centers and creates metrics that evaluate creative solutions. Application requirements define availability and resiliency requirements of the hosting solutions.

Every kilowatt-hour saved in a data center could save more than 10 times that much in potential energy resources…and that doesn’t begin to touch on energy efficiencies caused by Smart Grids, Smart Buildings, Smart Cities, etc., that are only “smart” because of the existence of IT.


1 United Nations, Our Common Future, Brundtland Report, 1987.
2 How Invention Begins, John H. Lienhard, Oxford Press, 2006, ISBN 9780195341201.
Total US energy consumption by end-use sector, 1949-2015, US Energy Information Administration, 2016,
4 Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
5 The Upcycle, Beyond Sustainability-Designing for Abundance, William McDonough & Michael Braungart, 2013, ISBN 9780865477483,
6 Environmental Engineering (EE); Circular Economy (CE) in Information and Communication Technology (ICT),
7 US Energy Information Administration, 2015 data.