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Managing energy demands in a net zero world

Brendan Marren

Brendan Marren

Head of distributed energy, Ireland, at Centrica Business Solutions
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The demand for data and digital services has never been greater – and will only increase.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), video streaming, online gaming and emerging digital technologies are driving demand for data centre and network services, and if trends continue, global internet traffic will double by 2023.

At a time when data storage is already recognised to be one of the world’s most energy-intensive industries – accounting for 1% of all global energy use according to IEA – an even greater demand will be placed on energy supplies as the need for server space increases.

A recent study, Data Centres and Decarbonisation: Unlocking Flexibility in Europe’s Data Centres, anticipates that large data centres in the UK, Germany, Ireland, Norway and the Netherlands will draw 5.4GW in ‘live IT power’ demand in 2030, up from 3GW at the end of 2021.

Ireland, for example, is renowned as a significant base for data centres that serve international markets. Multinationals such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook all have data centres located there providing cloud-based platforms that serve their customers.

Irish data centres accounted for about 15% of the country’s total electricity consumption in 2021. But by 2030, data centres could be drawing as much as 1.5GW of energy from Ireland’s electricity – which could represent over 25% of all the power available on the grid. That’s the same amount of energy required to power around 1.1 million homes.

In short, the combination of a constantly increasing demand for data combined with concern over energy availability and mounting environmental pressures are now placing data centres in a difficult situation.

They must find a way to balance their insatiable need for energy with their mandate to dramatically cut emissions.

Turning a cost to a commodity

Data centre operators have long been leaders in pursuing renewable power purchase agreements to green their operations and have increasingly looked for further ways to demonstrate their commitment to achieving net zero.

The solution is for data centres to proactively manage and take responsibility for their own energy.

This will mean producing more power via on-site generation and deploying technology that helps them understand exactly how their facility is using the energy it consumes.

On-site power generation will be nothing new to most data centre energy managers and has traditionally been used as an auxiliary back up power source.

But now is the time to start considering how it can play a more primary role, first supplementing energy from the grid, participating in grid stability programmes before eventually replacing it.

The right set up of energy technology is key for this. For example, energy generated through renewable sources such as solar panels or wind turbines could be used directly in the business, while energy that isn’t needed right away can be stored in a battery to be deployed at a later time.

Any energy that isn’t needed can also be fed back to the grid to create an additional revenue stream, while energy managers can ring-fence part of that stored capacity to ensure that the site’s resilience is never compromised.

Not only does this generate 100% renewable energy, but it helps to reduce carbon emissions too.

Another alternative is Combined Heat and Power (CHP) units. a highly efficient solution that captures the heat created through the electricity generation process, producing on-site heat and power simultaneously and supporting district heating project

The growth of the data centre industry is essential as the digital world expands. Taking control of the power supply through on-site generation is a triple threat to data centres. It reduces energy costs, brings down emissions and boosts energy resilience.

By generating and managing their own high efficiency power supply data centres can take positive steps towards a greener, more sustainable future while taking more control back with regarding to their timeframe’s requirements.

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