Next steps to net zero for African data centres

07 February 2023

Stavros Spyropoulos, business development manager Africa region, Subzero Engineering

We all know that the data centre industry, with high energy-intensive users, is looking to meet net zero goals. To achieve this, they need reliable and replicable solutions around greener energy. As the landscape in Africa is very different to Western Europe, with its increased external heat temperatures, makes it significantly harder to keep data centres cool. The industry must look towards technology that allows balance from both energy-efficiency, along with 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% but also within the hall itself A/C units working full time to make the working environment more bearable. 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.

Data centres for Africa’s MNOs

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% 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% 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.

Mobile network operators (MNOs) are fast adopting local data centre capacity to meet the growing data deluge. At the same time, environmental pressures, with net zero as the end target, are adding a layer of expectation to data centre owners, operators and users, including Africa’s MNOs.

Renewable energy

An 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 and has a capacity of 310MW, enough to supply one million homes. 90% of all of Kenya’s electricity being generated from renewable sources, such as wind and geothermal. However, in South Africa there is still a reliance on thermal power meaning currently it 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 into account this and future projects across the continent it is not hard to see how green energy is the answer to achieving net zero whilst maybe significantly reducing energy costs.

Climate neutral data centres

There’s 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’s 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 several 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 CFD evaluations can become crucial for data centres. Data centre operators can learn how to optimize 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.

Good news ahead

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 to 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.