Two most important aspects of sustainable tech are, how technology can help us in sustainability and how technology itself can be sustainable. When we talk about information technology sustainability, data centres are always on top of our minds because they consume a massive amount of energy to keep the vast internet/networks running 24×7. Data centres are the reason the internet as we know it exists now, and they provide multinational organisations with the computing power that they need to keep their organisation’s day-to-day operations running.


Singapore has more than 70 data centres, which together accounted for approx. 7 per cent of the country’s total electricity consumption. So, while Singapore is advancing the concept of green data centres and requiring that they be more energy efficient, our biggest deterrent to reducing our carbon footprint is the fact that 95 per cent of Singapore’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels (natural gas from overseas).


Singapore’s Trade & Industry Ministry has indicated, that while Singapore continues to welcome data centre investments it intends to be “more selective” of such projects moving forward. Additionally, the Singapore government has announced its ambition to achieve net-zero emissions in terms of energy production, by the year 2050. With the world moving towards alternate sources of energy, specifically those that are renewable or emission-efficient, there is a need to move away from fossil fuels and towards more sustainable forms of power production.


So, what would be a more sustainable way to keep data centres growing for Singapore, given that the demand for compute will only keep growing exponentially in the years ahead?


One way ahead could be taking a leaf out of the way that the FAGMA companies in the US have responded to the demand for clean energy – by investing heavily in wind and solar projects. But, given Singapore’s size, wind and solar alone won’t solve the problem and may not deliver the uptime requirements that are critical to data centres.


If nuclear energy is an option on the table, then small modular reactors, or SMR, as opposed to large nuclear reactors, could be considered as a viable option to power data centres for the following reasons:


  1. As a World Economic Forum report indicates, emission-free nuclear power is being seen as a viable option as new technology reactors are safer, cheaper to operate and easier to build.
  2. An SMR can generate up to 300Mw, and their size, construction efficiency and the fact that they use passive safety systems allow for it to be set up faster and at a much lower cost as compared to larger plants.
  3. SMRs, since they require less cooling, allow them to be built anywhere, without the constraint of needing a large body of water nearby. They require less fuel than older reactors, with most needing refueling only every 3-7 years or some that operate for up to 30 years before needing to refuel.
  4. And best of all, unlike conventional plants, SMRs can also be safely turned off and restarted!
  5. Given that the data centres are expected to remain online 24/7 and require much higher quality power supplies than most energy grids can provide, they will benefit significantly from a reliable on-site means of power production. This uninterrupted supply of power will also allow the centre to function more energy-efficiently, providing for greater environmental sustainability.
  6. The compact design of SMRs coupled with the fact that they are modular and can be easily shipped and assembled on-site, make them extremely useful in countries like Singapore that cannot support large power grids or reactors. Their zero-emission fuel makes them extremely compatible as well with the global shift towards ‘green’ power.
  7. Last but not the least, it would also help Singapore become less dependent on other sovereigns for its power.


Factors, such as environmental impact, efficiency and reliability of this technology, and waste from power grids, make SMRs a viable option to power data centres.


Flip side of it is that given the newness of the technology, the innovation-fueled growth has led to dozens of designs for SMRs and no industry standard, making manufacturing a lot more expensive. The cost of energy production as well is slightly higher than that of renewables.


Another challenge is the need to dispose of nuclear waste. SMRs may produce more voluminous and chemically/physically reactive waste than regular reactors, which may impact options for the management and disposal of this waste. With my limited knowledge, Singapore’s geography, however, may be leveraged to its advantage, as storage of used fuel is normally under water for at least five years and then often in dry storage.


SMRs, while still in their nascent stages, are promising, in that the benefits of these small modular reactors will far outweigh the short-term disadvantages the technology presents. While a high-investment project, the process of implementing SMRs is seemingly the most feasible for Singapore on its road to energy independence.