Carbon costing – the route to greener data centers

Convincing businesses to help save the planet. That'll be easy...
16 May 2023

Make it cost, drive the change you want to see.

With data centers becoming increasingly “must-have” necessary for our day-to-day and business lives, the need to improve the impact of their carbon footprint is being felt more and more.

In Part 1 of this article, we spoke to Chris Noble, CEO and co-founder of Cirrus Nexus, a cloud management platform which recently conducted a snapshot analysis of power grid regions in the U.S. and Europe to find which areas performed best in terms of carbon emissions.

In Part 2, Chris explained the complex pattern of energy supply from various green and carbon-intense sources across the US, and why “bigger, better, more” isn’t necessarily the right way to achieve a more ecologically sustainable data center industry.

While we had him in the chair, we asked Chris for something like a roadmap to get us from where we are to where we want to be on green power and green data.


I wish I had all the answers on that. If I had all the answers, I’d probably be a trillionaire by now.

There are a lot of things that have to happen, and we’ve hit on quite a few of those points in Parts 1 and 2.

Driving to the green.

Ultimately, we need to drive behaviour. And that’s really what we’re about, trying to drive behavior. The thing is, it has to start at a micro level, and part of driving that behavior is making sure that we actually apply a cost to carbon.

We’ve got a variety of organizations we work with that absolutely understand that there is a cost to carbon, that when they produce carbon, it impacts their bottom line directly. So they’ve applied a cost, they’ve said that their cost per tonne of carbon is x, and then they start applying it to budgets down the line.

That way, IT directors and CTOs have a budget. And now all of a sudden, 10%, 15% of that budget is a carbon cost. That drives the behavior of carbon minimization. Because it becomes something they can think about in budgetary terms – doing better for their business becomes linked with doing better on carbon. “I need to do this in a place where I can cut down my carbon, because it’s coming out of my budget now.”


And also, they can show the board and the shareholders they’re doing their best for the business by minimizing the associated carbon costs.


Exactly. And it goes beyond that, too. When IT directors and CTOs understand they need to minimize their carbon cost to maximize the health of the business, in this day and age, it can boost your business reputation too, so you can attract more switched-on talent to the organization, to help accelerate the process of change.

Virtuous circles.


A virtue-adding circle of minimized carbon.



We’ve had people say flat out, “Listen, it sounds like a great job, but I don’t want to work for a carbon-based company.” Back in the day, that wouldn’t be a thing, but today, people and companies are getting switched on, and they look at it as a direct impact on their reputation, on their ability to get talent, on their ability to meet the needs of the businesses they want to work with. As you say, it becomes a virtue-adding circle.

So that drives the behavior of businesses that two generations ago would have been perfectly carbon-happy. Now it’s important that they drive down their carbon costs. Important on their bottom line, to be sure, but also important in the wider context of their corporate relationships.


One question for the older generation – we grew up in the Eighties. In the report you recently published on which regions were doing better on “cleaner” energy for data centers, it feels important to explain that those “cleaner” sources included nuclear power.

Waving from the Eighties.

Our Inner Eighties Child popped their head out from under the desk of their nuclear meltdown drill, reading that. Is nuclear now considered a “clean” energy source? And if it is, is that because of super-duper effective advances in nuclear power generation since the Eighties? Or is it just that we have to classify it as clean now, because otherwise there’s a gaping hole in our energy provision map?


Ha. Yeah, I grew up in the Eighties too. It’s a clean energy source within the remit of lowering the carbon footprint of power generation, though. And, in fairness, yes, there have also been some super-duper safety advances – every year that moves us further away from the likes of Chernobyl, there are developments.

We have modular nuclear reactors now – they’re something the military has been using on ships for a long time. They’re much smaller, much safer, and because they’re modular, you can expand them, grow them, break them down as you need.

Back in the day, absolutely, you said nuclear was safe, people said “Until…”

That’s part of the ongoing challenge of educating the public. The nuclear reactors we use in 2023 are a whole different design, they don’t have the high pressure steam that causes the issues, they’re not as big and monolithic. Now granted, they can’t produce anywhere near as much power, but that’s okay, because you can line up multiple reactors.


And today we learned of the existence of LegoTM nuclear reactors…


It’s true that in the old days, when nuclear reactors went, they really… went. It made the news, rightfully of course, and it gave us all that instinctive reaction of nuclear=dangerous. But the new designs are much…




It just occurred to me not to say they’re a lot less volatile, but the safety mechanisms built into them these days means we can classify them as safe – especially when the immediate enemy in power generation these days are carbon and other greenhouse gases.

The value of hard data.


The generator that came in from the cold?

Again from the report, if we’re assuming that the industry as a whole is striving to be greener in future, information is the bedrock on which that has to be based, no?


Oh, definitely. A lot of the conversations that we have with organizations, they see the benefits of greener power, but they’re always asking what their motivation is.

Having the numbers, having the data is crucial at that point. We can turn to them and say “You might know what your numbers are – but we do. This is what they look like.” It’s crucial to be able to bring the numbers – after all, these are businesses and boards, numbers are what drive their action.

We can tell them in five-minute increments what their power consumption is, and what its composition is every hour. So we can say “This is how much carbon you produced in generating this much energy, the way you did it.”


Ultimately, it all comes back to that carbon cost idea. Commoditizing behavior patterns, both positive and negative, right?


Right – if you can do that, you can drive behavior towards greener power and greener data, because companies can say there’s a real bottom-line benefit to making more sustainable decisions, as well as improving their overall reputation as a planet-positive business.