INTERVIEW: Africa Data Centres take on sustainable solutions

Katie Hill, Director of Business Operations at ADC.

Mitigating the effects of climate change is every person and company’s responsibility – especially in Africa where experts believe it will be harder hit than most other parts of the world, says Katie Hill, Director of Business Operations for Africa Data Centre.

Katie Hill, Director of Business Operations at ADC.

IT News Africa’s Jenna Delport had the opportunity to chat with Katie – former Energy and Power team Lead at Apple – on the importance of implementing sustainable technologies. Here’s what transpired:

Why is deploying sustainable technologies important to you and Africa Data Centres?

I feel an incredible personal responsibility around how we as humans treat our environment and if we want to thrive as a population and also thrive as a business, we have to be thoughtful about conserving resources and managing energy, water and land in a responsible way.

I also think there are many opportunities where it can be both good for the environment and good for business where you find more efficiency, higher quality performance if you’re actually thinking about environmental factors.

At Africa Data Centre we are building really large scale facilities across the continent in many different environments. South Africa is obviously a large base for us, but we have big operations in Kenya. We also have smaller operations in Zimbabwe and Rwanda. There are near term expansion plans in Nigeria and Egypt and each one of those countries has its own challenges around resource scarcity, challenges around the quality of power and the carbon impact of the power that’s available.

And since we are a large power consumer data storage that requires a tremendous amount of power for both the IT equipment and the cooling – we want to be really thoughtful around using low carbon sources of power for that.

How is Africa Data Centres working on limiting the impact on the environment at its Data Centres?

First is just a ruthless focus on efficiency, which is good for business and good for the environment. So we are monitoring our facilities 24/7, looking at ways that we can reduce our power consumption, either by the design of the facility or the operations of the facility. Second, we are looking at cleaner sources of power. And really, what’s interesting here is it comes down to the default environment you’re working in.

So many people don’t know this, but Kenya’s power grid is 90% renewable already. So the majority of its power comes from geothermal, hydropower, wind and solar. And that is already a very responsible source of power. It doesn’t mean we’re not still interested in renewables there.

In contrast to Kenya, you take South Africa, where the grid is 80 to 90% coal, and particularly, my understanding is particularly poor, low quality coal that has greater carbon impact. So in a place like South Africa, we are extremely concerned about how we source lower carbon and renewable energy sources for our data centre.

At each of our data centres, we’re maximising the on-site solar potential. We’re working with a company called Distributed Power Africa, who’s basically building installing solar systems in each of the data centres and we will consume all the power from those solar systems.

As a second step, we’re actually looking at how we expand beyond just what we can generate on-site because you’re limited by the number of rooftop square metres. So we are looking at creative solutions to basically be installing solar on neighbouring rooftops.

Then, what we would like to be doing and what has happened in a lot of other parts of the world is private companies and consumers can actually source directly from renewable energy projects, but that is very policy dependent.

Another area where we think about sustainability is around water. Data centres actually consumed very little water. It is not a water-intensive industry, we have closed-loop cooling systems which require water upfront, but then it doesn’t require replenishment.

What kind of impact does clean and sustainable energy have on Africa Data Centres solutions?

Ultimately, our data storage service with 100% uptime and reliable power and cooling and absolute security for our customers isn’t impacted by the source of the power of the source of the water.

But we do find that a number of customers, mostly our large international customers, are really pushing for more sustainable technologies in data centres. they’re increasingly looking at their suppliers of colocation services like an Africa data Centre to also be using renewable energy.

There is a global shift happening here. And I think that’s because we recognise that as the technology industry grows, as we increasingly move online and have digital lives, the amount of data is tremendous. And so the need for these services grows with that shift. And so we need to make sure that growth is sustainable.

Do you think that sustainable solutions should be standard practice across the entire cloud, backup, storage and networking industry?

At some point, you have to take a step back and say, what kind of company do we want to work for? Implementing these solutions makes our employees feel proud to work at a company that’s taking these issues seriously. We think the entire industry should be stepping up. And if we did that, and if we did that together, we could probably get have a voice in policy discussions that would enable us to access more renewable energy.

What obstacles has Africa Data Centres faced in creating a 100% renewable energy powered business? 

I would say the biggest obstacle is navigating the local policy environments in each country because accessing renewable power is quite different. And that’s the same case in Kenya versus South Africa versus Nigeria, etc.

We’d love to work with government and policymakers on how to provide more choice to large businesses that want to become low carbon while also needing to make sure it is financially viable for the utility and for the government. We’re looking for policies that provide access to renewables for both households as well as businesses.

In Nigeria, the challenge is that the electricity system is fairly broken. The vast majority of businesses and households run on independent diesel generators, not even grid power, which is remarkable given that Nigeria is such a large, robust and vibrant economy. It’s one of the most entrepreneurial places and so that’s a situation where if you were to build a data centre, it would be running completely on diesel generators – which is not only three times the cost of average utility power. It’s bad for everybody but much worse for the environment.

As we expand there we are looking at direct natural gas sources as well as large scale solar storage installation.

What has been the most surprising thing about implementing sustainable solutions at Africa Data Centres?

Seeing so many employees who are not directly involved in the projects that now want to get involved and be curious. At ADC, it’s been a beautiful thing to see how people are willing and interested to engage in these technologies. And I think it makes them feel proud of the company they work for.

What advice would you give to a company that is looking to introduce sustainable solutions?

I would say don’t try to do it all yourself. It’s difficult for companies to suddenly build expertise in this area, and maybe they don’t actually need to build expertise – maybe they can rely on outside experts. Look for partners who can come in and build the solution rather than having to figure this all out on your own.

By Jenna Delport

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