EU eyes energy-efficient design of computer servers

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This article is part of our special report ICT: Fuelling the economy.

Computer servers, the high-performance machines used to run programmes and software services, are facing a design revamp that will make them more energy efficient, following recent assessments by the European Commission.

Servers, together with data storage equipment and four other groups of products, have recently made the Commission’s “priority list” for the Ecodesign Directive because of their “significant” energy savings potential.

The Commission said the combined energy saving of these products would amount to 1157 TWh per year by 2030 – twice the total annual energy consumption in Sweden.

“If they know they will be regulated, it puts more pressure on [industry] to go green," said Edouard Toulouse of the European Environmental Citizens Organisation for Standardisation (ECOS), who has been taking part in discussions on the directive.

Big players of cloud computing – like Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon – could lead the industry by opening the discussion on server efficiency.

“It’s in their interest to have energy efficient computers and they are constructive and progressive about it,” Toulouse told EURACTIV.

More efficient servers and data-storage equipment might mean fewer costs for companies and lower bills for consumers, the European Consumers Organisation BEUC says.

Stakeholders were to meet again this week for a discussion on the next wave of products to be regulated under the Ecodesign Directive.

The Commission needs to assess in the coming months the efforts already made on energy-efficient servers and data storage equipment and decide if there are any issues to address.

“It pushes them to start looking into this matter, and if voluntary approach is deemed satisfactory, there will be no need for regulation,” Toulouse said.

If it identifies shortcomings that cannot be resolved through voluntary agreements from the industry, then the EU executive will act to set laws within three years.

Uptake of cloud computing

Cloud computing, which refers to software and data stored remotely by companies or individuals, requires service provides to have vast server and storage capacity.

“There is still a big problem with cloud. People don’t use it enough, even if companies like Microsoft are trying to make it seem as simple as possible,” a software programmer working for an international computing company told EURACTIV.

“But once they realise they can address the need to buy a special research programme and hire additional staff for a one-off situation, or without their servers crashing, for example, they will want to instead ‘rent’ this service through cloud computing”.

Industry ahead of the wave

As cloud providers prepare for the growth of services, they are also getting ready for the additional expenses they would incur – including the cost of energy to run the servers.

The market is already ahead of this development – which increases its chances to reach a voluntary agreement on energy-efficient servers with the Commission.

For example, Microsoft is leading discussions on energy efficiency and Google has created incentives to save as much energy as possible in the power management and cooling of data centres that store servers.

One of the latter’s most recent examples is the data centre set up on the Finnish coast, in Hamina, where water is pumped through an underground tunnel to cool the building.

But cooling data centres is not the top priority of these companies – energy-efficient conversion servers and methods of power conversion have the best energy savings potential.

An investment of €19,000 in energy-saving design generates returns of €50,000 per year, Google reports.

Manufacturers disagree

In the coming weeks, stakeholders will comment on possible obstacles in the inclusion of servers and data storage equipment in the Ecodesign Directive. One of the thorny issues is the initial cost required to make improvements.

Some industry voices say they are already working with the Commission on developing ecodesign requirements for some server systems.

“The Commission needs to weigh this up, along with the fact that the data centre industry is moving way faster than regulation, in evaluating whether an ecodesign measure is the best way forward,” said Kirsty Macdonald, senior energy policy manager at Intel Corporation.

BEUC's position is that the industry has been delaying the implementation of binding EU measures and is refraining from new legislation. “The ICT industry has been very outspoken against the inclusion of servers and data storage equipment in the working plan,” the consumer group said in a statement.

However, there is reason to expect new EU regulation – or the alternative, industry voluntary agreements – on servers in the near future.

For this to happen, however, resources must move to something that is more commensurate with the resources that are available in the United States and elsewhere, writes an EU-commissioned study on the evaluation of the effectiveness of the directive by the UK-based Centre for Strategy and Evaluation Services (CSES).

“If the extension of the directive is not to be an empty gesture, it should be ensured that implementation and enforcement of legal requirements is feasible, practicable and cost-effective,” the study says.

“We’ve taken major strides in improving data centre energy efficiency through the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres, the Green Grid and vigorous competition in the marketplace. This is recognised in the Commission’s working plan study,” said Kirsty Macdonald, senior energy policy manager at Intel Corporation

Commenting on the delays in including new products in the Ecodesign Directive, despite the scientific evidence on the table, European Consumers Organisation BEUC said in a statement:

“Another example of the failure of Ecodesign to tackle ICT products are computers. Although they were already in the 2005 transitional list of products, industry has successfully prevented the adoption of any mandatory requirements. And the Voluntary Agreements on imaging equipment and TV-decoders concluded by the ICT industry under article 8 of the Ecodesign Directive have been nothing more than a series of delays and a disappointing list of exemptions.”

Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, said:

“The proposal to include maximum up to nine products in the Ecodesign Working Plan is a clear indication of a lack of ambition on behalf of the Commission. With scientific evidence in favour of tackling more products than currently proposed, we regret the Commission is shying away from taking bolder steps. We ask the Commission to dedicate the necessary resources to give a powerful impulse to Ecodesign.”

A study on the evaluation of the effectiveness of the eirective by the UK-based Centre for Strategy and Evaluation Services (CSES) says: “The inadequacy of Commission resources for participation in implementing processes is clearly a major cause of delay and a very significant constraint on the whole Ecodesign system. By way of comparison, staffing levels in the USA are in the region of 10 times the number of desk officers in the Commission. Even in China, there are about 70 staff and more than 40 product regulations. There is a similar disparity in terms of resources devoted to the necessary studies.” 

To reduce the environmental impact of products from the design phase onwards, the EU adopted a Framework Directive on setting Eco-design Requirements for Energy-using Products in 2005 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).

The European Commission was mandated to define minimum energy efficiency performance requirements on a product-specific basis. But no deadlines were set for implementation.

The first 19 energy-using product groups for which energy-efficiency standards were established - including heating equipment, lighting, domestic appliances and electric motors - were selected during a transitional phase after the adoption of the directive in July 2005. The Commission now says it expects implementation measures for eight priority products among these 19 to be adopted in 2011.

In July 2008, the Commission adopted a proposal for a directive extending the scope of the ecodesign rules to cover other energy-using products. A further 10 'product families' were identified, 17 preparatory studies were launched, and the Commission says these are expected to result in "possible regulations in 2012".

  • 17 Feb. 2012: Deadline for commenting on the draft of the second Working Plan of the Ecodesign Directive

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