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Ireland’s DC sector set to be the next world leader in sustainable power

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Ireland’s data centre sector is uniquely positioned to lead the world in sustainable power, Ed Ansett, founder and chairman at i3 Solutions Group explains how.

When it comes to the reporting of new developments, renewable energy projects and growing capacity, few data centre markets have been as fast paced as Ireland.

But for the onlooker, this booming sector is already displaying some of the problems of success.

Challenges include how to facilitate demand for power, especially the right type of power, as well as what power generation options are available to ensure continuous supply to power data centres without adversely affecting carbon emissions reduction targets, or slowing the projected move to renewables.

The question arises, could – or should – the Irish data centre sector as a whole explore and evaluate energy sources such as natural gas, biogas and blended hydrogen as they develop their own power generation strategies?

If all the current and planned onshore and offshore wind power was available at once, Ireland’s grid could feed the requirements of the entire country, including its existing planned data centres, with significant excess residual capacity for export.

The country has already made a large investment in onshore wind and now, with the development of offshore wind farms such as Arklow Bank Phase 2, wind energy is catching up with – and even overtaking – the capacity of Ireland’s established synchronous power stations.

But the wind doesn’t always blow, not even in Ireland. And the sun doesn’t always shine, especially not in Ireland.

Hoping that one can exactly match renewable power supplies to data centre requirements as well as other demands is not a strategy. It may happen coincidentally for a few days each year, but otherwise alternative options are a vital necessity.

Problems surrounding the intermittent nature of renewable power are becoming well known in the data centre industry.

In a sector as traditionally conservative and risk-averse, the issue is to find an energy source which reliably complements the intermittency of renewables.

In rising to this challenge, Ireland’s data centre sector is emerging as a world leader in the adoption of gas reciprocating and turbine engines, including the use of blended hydrogen for on-site generation and battery energy storage systems (BESS).

In doing so, it is also gaining valuable experience which will address many of issues facing today’s global data centre market.

Because of its grid structure, its investment in onshore and offshore wind, and its access to a natural gas supply, Ireland’s data centres are likely to be the first to benefit from on-site gas engine and BESS operation at scale.

Jon Sedgewick, head of market operations at Electricity Exchange told a recent industry panel that data centres have the opportunity to deploy gas engine infrastructure which can feed back power to the grid.

The availability of this type of power generation supports the uptake of renewables by the grid operator, by making capacity and supply more reliable as the nation becomes more dependent on renewables. Gas used for back-up is low carbon, especially when running on blended hydrogen.

On-site gas generation also brings other benefits. These include offsetting peak power tariffs for operators, the option to generate payments for demand side response (DSR) supplies fed back into the grid, and even enabling grid sustainability through its reliability to support the grid when renewable power availability ramps down and demand ramps up.

While supply and distribution challenges are complex, the data centre sector could lead the way in the innovative use of on-site gas reciprocating engines and turbines, to generate power either captured in energy storage systems or supplied directly to the grid to meet demand.

As Ireland’s grid shifts to become more and more dependent on the use of renewables, the concept of System Non-Synchronous Penetration (SNSP) comes into play.

Renewable generation is non-synchronous, meaning it produces a variable amount of energy depending on wind availability and the amount of sunlight.

SNSP is the metric used to measure the maximum amount of renewable and HVDC (high voltage direct current) energy that can be accommodated by the grid at any given moment, before system frequency control becomes too challenging for the operator.

At the moment SNSP is limited to 65% (Q1 2018), but the target for 2030 is achieve an SNSP of 90% or greater.

This is a scale challenge. Ireland’s grid will grow to over 11GWs by 2030. Eirgrid forecasts that 25% of the growth in demand could come from data centres.

With an increase in data centre on-site gas engines, the use of curtailed renewable wind energy to produce hydrogen becomes a reality. This enables net zero production of hydrogen, which can be used either to power gas engines directly or blended with natural gas.

A modern reliable gas grid, a move to renewables away from traditional synchronous power generation and a booming data centre sector should result in a huge expansion in the use of gas engines and BESS to deliver many hundreds of MWs to power Ireland’s data centres. At the same time, it will accelerate Ireland’s journey to a carbon-free future.

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