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Behind data center giant Equinix's $3.7 billion investment in green bonds

Equinix interconnection
Equinix

This article was originally published by Climate & Capital Media and is reprinted with permission.

Equinix, a leading data center real estate investment trust, announced that it is committed to becoming climate-neutral by 2030, the first company in the industry to do so.

The Redwood City, California-based company operates 230 data centers in 26 countries on five continents. That’s a lot of computing power, which requires a lot of energy. But Equinix is making moves to be on the leading edge of sustainability in the industry — in part with financing from green bonds.

"We have issued over $3.7 billion in green bonds and are leading the way through our advocacy for sustainable business practices," said Katrina Rymill, Equinix vice president of investor relations and sustainability. 

The bonds will finance projects for green buildings, renewable energy, energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste reduction and clean transportation, as laid out in the company’s Green Finance Framework. Importantly, Equinix has set science-based climate targets that align with the Paris Agreement and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Equinix makes money — $68 million net profit on revenues of $1.658 billion in the second quarter — by providing colocation services; renting space in its data centers to multiple tenants to house their servers, storage and networking equipment; and providing their customers ways to let their computers talk to each other privately rather than over the public internet.

Innovation powers efficiency

Data centers come in various sizes but all require power to operate information technology equipment and to keep IT systems cool, Rymill said. Equinix already procures 100 percent renewable energy for 180 data centers, putting the company well on its way to its goal set in 2015 of achieving 100 percent clean and renewable energy to address the largest source of carbon in its footprint, she said. 

Even as digitization has grown exponentially, the sector’s energy requirements have grown incrementally due to server efficiency improvements, consolidation, design and operations, Rymill said.

Science Magazine found that in 2018 global data center energy use was 205 terawatt-hours, or 1 percent of global electricity consumption, she said. "On an absolute basis, this represents a 6 percent increase compared to 2010, whereas global data center compute instances increased by 550 percent over the same period." Modern data center cooling and power systems are so much more efficient that the decrease in their energy use largely offsets the growth in total IT device energy use, Rymill explained.

Modern data center cooling and power systems are so much more efficient that the decrease in their energy use largely offsets the growth in total IT device energy use.

Equinix’s power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating goals — how much electricity goes to the computing vs how much to cooling, lighting and other overhead, the closer to 1 better — range from 1.20-1.40, she said. Depending on location and climate, many new sites are designed to be below 1.20 at full load. "We aim to achieve our PUE goals through a combination of energy efficiency investments, best practices and operational discipline," Rymill said.

Local utilities and third parties typically supply power and water to Equinix data centers, which also deploy solar panels and capture rainwater, she said.

Also typical at data centers are backup diesel generators to keep centers running 24/7 in the rare case of a power outage.

In a first, Equinix’s newest building, a $142 million, 20-megawatt data center in San Jose called SV11, will use Bloom Energy fuel cells as the primary power supply and rely on the local electric grid as backup. The building will also have diesel generators as further backup. Equinix uses fuel cells at other data centers to place electricity generation near energy and take pressure off the already stressed electric grid. "In addition, we are considering the role hydrogen may play in our future energy strategy and how fuel cells may be complementary to Equinix taking advantage of the nascent green hydrogen economy," Rymill said.

While providing a cleaner and reliable source of electricity, fuel cells are not inherently renewable, she said.

She said Equinix’s renewable energy comes from wind farms in Oklahoma and Texas; renewable energy certificates and local clean energy or low-carbon programs in the U.S. and Brazil; certified green power from suppliers in Europe; and international certificates from renewable energy projects in China, Japan and Vietnam.

The water challenge

"Water is a key resource and a global concern for Equinix," Rymill acknowledged. Its primary use is for cooling data centers so the servers don’t overheat.

Through a sustainable water management program launched this year, Equinix will establish its water consumption baseline, measure water usage effectiveness and devise a global approach to water savings.

Where water supplies are unreliable, present a business risk, or have a significant adverse impact on the environment, Equinix uses dry cooling methods, Rymill said. The company is working with industry partners on advanced cooling technologies both with and without water.

Reducing power consumption also reduces water use, she said. Equinix also looks at alternative onsite power generation methods such as fuel cells, which consume no water at all.

"Our 40-megawatt initial deployment of fuel cells announced in 2017 saves around 87 billion gallons of water per year," she said.

"We are also reducing our use of water treatment chemicals. Equinix is piloting chemical-free and water-saving water treatment installations. When these pilots have a positive outcome, we will introduce these technologies worldwide."

Equinix ranks No. 6 on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Top 100 List of the largest green power users from the Green Power Partnerships. The company used nearly 2.5 billion kWh of green power sourced from biomass, geothermal, small hydropower, solar and wind, according to the EPA.

"We take our responsibility to build a more sustainable future seriously," said Raouf Abdel, executive vice president of global operations.

And, as Equinix knows, moving in this direction just makes good business sense: In a recent, independent survey of 2,600 Equinix customers worldwide, more than half said the the "greenness" of suppliers had a direct impact on their buying decisions and want Equinix to demonstrate the sustainability of their infrastructure — and those numbers are going up with each passing year.

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