University Data Centres: Policy and business case for reducing greenhouse gas emissions

By Jean-François Lévesque, Chris Caners, Don MacLean, Tony Vetter on September 22, 2010

In this study, IISD assesses the feasibility of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating carbon offsets via the relocation or modification of University Information and Communication Technology (ICT) assets, leveraging Canada's Advanced Research and Innovation Network's (CANARIE's) fibre optic network that connects universities across Canada.

Working with three universities, IISD prepared carbon footprint analyses and explored the business case for relocation that access to carbon credits might support. Several options are presented, including a proposal to co-locate or consolidate multiple data centres, allowing them to be optimized and operated more efficiently and effectively through virtualization, best practices and economies of scale, ideally in a green community cloud configuration.

In particular, the study investigated three scenarios: (1) moving University data centres to remote, zero-carbon (i.e., powered with renewable energy) facilities; (2) relocating the data centres to urban settings in provinces with low-emission electrical grids and where waste heat from the data centre can be utilized effectively; and (3) modifying the existing data centre to capture and utilize waste heat. Upon analyzing these scenarios, it was determined that only the third, in one case, would generate sufficient revenue from the sale of carbon credits to overcome the expense of the project.

Following the principles of ISO 14064-1 to the extent possible, the carbon footprint for the main data centres at each University was completed. To limit the complexity of this study, only the main ICT data centres designed and operated to host each University's mission-critical systems were evaluated. The annual carbon footprint ensuing from the operation of all three data centres combined was 11,305 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)—Ottawa, 1,007; Dalhousie, 5,010; and Alberta, 5,288.

Based on the carbon footprint analysis, the revenue from the sale of carbon credits (or offsets) and the incremental costs associated with the implementation of each scenario were estimated for each University and a net present value (NPV) calculated. The NPV was not positive for any of the Universities under the first or second scenarios; only the analysis for the University of Alberta resulted in a positive NPV in the third scenario.

Ultimately, the investigation found that although the economics for generating revenue via carbon credits from data centres was generally not attractive for the individual Universities studied, a green community cloud data centre operated and administered by CANARIE has numerous other benefits and is more likely to be economically beneficial, presenting a perhaps ideal opportunity for CANARIE to leverage its position and provide leadership to its membership and the Canadian ICT sector in general.

Policy implications and opportunities are presented for federal and provincial governments, universities, data centres and CANARIE.

Report details

Climate Change Mitigation
Focus area
IISD, 2010