By Miriam Aczel, PhD researcher from Imperial College London

I recently joined the EURECA Project as an intern through SHAPE ENERGY. I was first introduced to the SHAPE ENERGY project at a conference on Energy Impacts in Bergen, Norway, where I met Dr. Nathalie Orthar and Dr. Delphine Burguet, and learned about the only EU Horizon 2020-funded project on using social science methods to advance energy research and policy.

My PhD research focuses on environmental and health impacts of hydraulic fracturing to extract unconventional shale gas. I am currently exploring methods to strengthen the regulatory framework to better protect the environment and public health, including incorporating economics, sociology, social geography, and other means to measure and assess the impacts of ‘fracking’. The goal of SHAPE ENERGY—using strategies from social science and humanities to advance environmental policy—intrigued me, motivating me to address my research from different perspectives, which I further developed during a SHAPE ENERGY Summer School at the University of Lyon’s ENTPE. I was excited to learn that there was a new opportunity to further expand on what I had learned in the summer school, and apply these methods in a practical setting—through the SHAPE ENERGY PhD Internships.

The project I chose—the EU Resource Efficiency Coordination Action, EURECA—looks at ways to promote energy efficiency in data centres and therefore to reduce environmental impacts. EURECA is a three-year funded project under the H2020 programme, which includes international partners from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Netherlands and Germany with the goal of providing solutions to help identify cost-saving opportunities whilst minimizing environmental impacts of hardware and other procurement selections in data centres.

My supervisor, Dr. RabihBashroush, is the Coordinator of the EURECA project as well as the Director of the Enterprise Computing research group at the University of East London, where I was based for my internship.1 And although my home university, Imperial College London, is based in the same city, it felt like a chance to experience a totally different city! Imperial is on the far West end of London, while UEL is on the opposite end of huge London, on the canal. Opposite the London City Airport, the campus is newly constructed, with brightly colored buildings on the dock. I found housing in a sunny Airbnb with a balcony overlooking the canal, and only a half hour walk, or few minutes on the train, from my new campus.

On my first day, I met Dr. Bashroush, who gave me a thorough introduction to the project. Dr. Bashroush explained that there are many ways to increase energy use efficiency in server data centres—and therefore reduce environmental impacts, including ‘virtualization’ to prevent redundancy in servers, and by refreshing the hardware and software to ensure the servers are operating at their greatest efficiency.

A data centre is a facility where networked computers are housed, and vast, and increasing amounts of data are stored and processed. The problem of high energy use—particularly in older servers—and approaches to reduce impact was something I knew little about when I arrived. I began the internship with no knowledge of server technology and had not much about the energy usage and potential environmental impacts of data centre IT equipment. But I think that’s exactly what made for such an interesting experience: learning something completely new, but with lessons and applications in my own PhD research. My research looks at a specific problem—potential for environmental and health damage in the developing technology of fracking. This internship presented a different but related problem—environmental impacts posed by high levels of energy use in data centres. My first task was to understand the problem. I met with my supervisor to learn more about the EURECA team’s research and further developed background by reading the literature on their work to more fully understand the source of environmental and health risk related to energy use in high volume data centres. After developing a general understanding of the workings of these centres, I began to focus on one particular aspect of a centre’s operation. EURECA has collected data on the energy savings, or benefits, of refreshing or updating hardware. Using this data, I posed the question that I would answer during the internship: how could hardware refresh be ‘translated’ into specific environmental and health benefits? How could I use my understanding of environmental impact assessment to strengthen the environmental argument in their research and findings? The goal of my internship would be to provide the team with a report detailing the health and environmental benefits of hardware updating compared with ‘business as usual’–a daunting task but a valuable experience to be able to use my research and analytic skills in a setting with real-world impacts. As I continue working on the project, I am enjoying finding intersections between EURECA and my PhD research.