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Is the green truly in the grey?

Image: Adobe Stock / Connect world

With data centres responsible for 2% of the world’s greenhouse emissions, their impact on the environment is no small feat. Janne Paananen, technology manager at Eaton EMEA, explores how data centres can adopt a greener approach to energy usage that will help the UK transition to a low carbon economy.

416.2 Terawatt hours of electricity – that is how much the world’s data centres consumed in 2017. And if current projections are true, it’s likely that the world’s data centres will consume at least three times the amount of electricity they do today in the next ten years. The environmental impact of this of course cannot be ignored. Data centres all over the world are using 3% of the global energy usage and in turn, are responsible for 2% of greenhouse gases.

Janne Paananen
Janne Paananen, technology manager, Eaton EMEA

What’s clear is that the industry has recognised the responsibility to reduce the combined carbon footprint as well as decrease energy usage. Many data centres are already taking steps to reduce their energy usage and priortise energy efficiency, balancing both costs with the environmental impact.

Webaxys, for example, is a data centre with a strong belief that reaching a low carbon future can be achieved by reusing old electric vehicle (EV) batteries. Furthermore, many data centres are currently experimenting with the process by which data centre waste heat is reused; a practice that is particularly gaining momentum in the Nordics.

Finally, 2016 research released by Berkeley Lab in the US, revealed that after rising sharply for more than ten years, the US electricity consumption by data centre started to plateau in 2010, and has remained steady since – at just under 2% of total US electricity consumption. This showing that the data centre industry has the ability to make a shift to greater energy efficiency if the right techniques are applied.

It’s of course positive news that more and more energy providers are moving towards renewable energy sources. In 2017, 24% of global electricity demand was produced by renewables such as wind, solar and hydro-power. But here’s the catch. Renewable energy generation can be very intermittent.

So, how do we get around this?

This intermittency needn’t be viewed negatively. As the energy market moves further away from fuel-based energy to renewable energy, production itself could potentially become more volatile and harder to accurately predict and balance electrical supply. Moreover, the amount of inertia and the natural frequency stabilisation mechanism of the grid is decreasing and this makes for faster and greater frequency transients, especially during major faults.

The instability of a fluctuating electricity supply is not good for data centres as they rely on a steady and reliable supply of energy. With the rise of renewable energy sources and an ever-rising demand for electricity, we expect to see more fluctuating power quality in the grid.

So what does this mean for data centres? It means that they have the ability to play a critical role in helping energy providers maintain power quality by balancing consumption with power generation. More organisations in the energy sector need to help organisations immediately respond to grid-level power demands to keep frequencies within confined boundaries. This will avoid grid-wide power outages. In summary, data centres can be paid back either for not drawing power, or for offering capacity back to the National Grid.

More organisations need to look to UPS-as-a-Reserve (UPSaaR) data centre solutions that allow them to earn from their UPS investment. This works because it puts data centres in control of their energy, selecting how much capacity to offer at what times and at what price. The typical returns can be up to 50,000 euros per MW power allocated to the grid to support per year.

Making the process work

A UPSaaR service enables data centre operators to put the UPS to work as part of a virtual power plant, that enables them to take part in the demand-side market and in high-value FCR. The UPS can be utilised to support the grid by replacing demand with the power taken from batteries.

The power that has been discharged is effortlessly regulated in parallel with the UPS rectifier to provide an accurate response, which is independent of load level. Data centre operators can then support the grid in regulating frequency, creating extra revenue to offset the total cost of ownership of the UPS, or as part of making the data centre more competitive from a price standpoint.

Organisations, such as Eaton, have demonstrated that UPS systems and batteries can be safely and efficiently deployed to carry out demand-side response operations without any risk to the UPS’s primary function.

The data centre would work with the likes of a commercial energy aggregator to offer its capacity to the National Grid or Transmission System Operator. A range of service providers can install the functionality and provide the right communication interface to the aggregator’s systems.

Data centres can truly act as change agents – helping the UK transition to a low carbon economy. By helping energy providers balance consumption with the generation of power, and by selling electricity back to the grid, they can make a real difference on the UK’s carbon footprint. It’s time to see more data centres across the country adopt a smarter, greener approach to energy usage.

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