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Greenergy Data Centers and NIIS are Laying the Foundations for a Sustainable Digital Future

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With its singsong vowels, Hüüru, Estonia, is not exactly a name one forgets. Still, it became even more notable in recent years when Greenergy Data Centers decided to build its facility there. The opening of the facility has dovetailed with other efforts to make digital solutions sustainable by software providers such as the Tallinn-based Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions.

Greenergy Data Center (GDC), which advertises itself as the most energy-efficient and secure data centre in the Baltics, built its facility in Hüüru village outside of Tallinn, setting it apart from other centres in the region. “There’s a big difference if the servers are kept in an office building, in a retrofitted warehouse, or designated data centre,” said Uko Urb, GDC’s marketing manager. 

GDC, which commenced operations in February, is the brainchild of Kert Evert, who left behind a career in telecommunications in the mid-2010s to pursue the idea of building a modern data centre in Estonia.

With support from Finnish and Estonian investors, they eventually raised enough private equity to start constructing the facility. They identified Hüüru as ideal, given its proximity to a major power substation and transport nodes and its secure perch upon a limestone embankment.

Optimising energy use …

Sustainability has been at the core of GDC’s vision from the beginning, and the new data centre is equipped not only to be carbon neutral but also carbon negative, as energy from its operations could be used to heat its own facility as, potentially, adjacent properties. 

According to Urb, GDC has optimised its energy usage thanks to the placement of more than 3,000 infrastructure and environmental sensors throughout the centre. It also has an AI-powered cooling system, meaning that the temperature of the 14,500-square-meter facility is managed by AI, which is constantly gathering and employing data to predict where and how to best distribute cooling capabilities. This allows the data centre to limit energy use to only what is necessary. Urb said that GDC is among the first in Europe to deploy such a cooling approach.

… and reusing server heat

GDC also reuses excess heat, Urb noted. “As the IT equipment in the data centre running our e-societies turns electricity into heat, the excess heat should be put to good use,” he commented. “The data centre building and equipment are heated with this same residual energy.”

Given this heat source, GDC plans to distribute the excess heat to a district heating company with the potential to heat thousands of homes. Urb said that GDC already has the technical capability to dispatch heat from its site. Negotiations with potential recipients are ongoing. 

Plots near the data centre, such as residential and industrial buildings built to harness such energy, would make ideal users, Urb reckoned. He noted that the first full house of servers at the Greenergy Data Centers facility could ideally issue 6 megawatts of heat. “This would be enough to heat one hundred apartment buildings or approximately 5,000 households,” Urb predicted.

The footprint of e-Estonia

GDC’s clients are currently domestic and international companies from diverse fields, including IT, finance, cloud service providers, telecommunications, and the like. Urb declined to name any. “For many companies, the location of their server rooms is a secret,” he said.

The facility’s plans for 2023 include producing sustainable electricity on-site. Urb said that GDC is examining scenarios featuring solar panels and geothermal energy. “This will further decrease the ecological footprint of hosting data in our facility and the overall footprint of e-Estonia,” said Urb. He added that GDC is interested in building similar facilities in Central and Eastern Europe. 

A wakeup call

Like GDC, the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS) involves Estonian and Finnish players. Ville Sirviö, a Finn with a background in digital solutions, software and e-commerce, has been CEO of NIIS since 2017. The nonprofit oversees the development of X-Road® software, the backbone of Estonia’s X-tee ecosystem of digital services, and other cross-border solutions for government infrastructure. NIIS has its office in Tallinn, but its development team has actually been based also in Tampere, Finland, and Vilnius, Lithuania, through the years, Sirviö said. Iceland is the third member of NIIS, and the Faroe Islands and the Government of Åland are partners of NIIS that cooperate in the X-Road development.

When X-Road was reviewed by the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) and found to be a digital public good in alignment with the Digital Public Goods Standard in 2020, Sirviö said it was a “wake-up call” for NIIS to increase its efforts around sustainability, which has always been a core value at NIIS.

X-Road’s users are also increasingly global, he added, which means that NIIS is responsible for making its solutions environmentally friendly and sustainable. “When it’s deployed around the world, X-Road has a really strong social impact, as it’s a building block for many societies,” Sirviö remarked.

Ville Sirviö e-Estonia

Primary goals

In January, Sirviö, who studied leading sustainable organisations at the University of Oxford, outlined his vision for a sustainable NIIS in an article. In it, he said that NIIS’ primary goal as an organisation is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. It also aims to reduce X-Road’s environmental impact, making it the “most sustainable data exchange solution” by the end of the decade.

Achieving the organisation’s goal will involve moving toward renewable energy within NIIS, and throughout its activities, including rethinking how it carries out travelling, procurement, and consumption. Making X-Road more sustainable in the user organisations could ideally start by reducing energy consumption by running X-Road in a cloud environment, for instance.

A dozen diesel trains

But this will be hard work, he said. According to Sirviö, NIIS recently partnered with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), a nonprofit research and policy organization, to assess the carbon emissions produced by security servers in the Estonian X-tee ecosystem. SEI determined that the amount of emissions generated by X-Road’s security servers in Estonia annually equalled the energy expended by 68 diesel trains travelling between Tallinn and Tapa, a town in central Estonia.

These kinds of assessments are continuing, Sirviö said, and NIIS is also interested in developing tools for operators of X-Road-ecosystems that could be used to best configure their setups to reduce emissions. In particular, emissions are linked to sources of electricity, whether or not it is green or fossil fuel-based, he said. That could be an issue beyond the Nordics, especially.

“We must remember that X-Road is used globally, and therefore we cannot count on green data centers alone,” said Sirviö. “We have to take into account that X-Road will be deployed anywhere. As software developer, we have to do our part for sustainability.”

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