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Sustainability & skills: the priorities for data centre operators in 2023

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Image: Adobe Stock / sdecoret

Danel Turk, Global Segment Leader for Data Centres at ABB, answers some crucial questions about the big challenges facing data centre operators this year, and what they can do to overcome them.

What are data centres’ top priorities this year?

Addressing the skills shortage remains a big priority. Half of data centre engineers will have retired within a few years, according to research by The Uptime Institute. However, as we know, demand for data centres keeps increasing, and so does demand for more engineers and staff. Something needs to be done to address this skills gap.

Sustainability also remains a key priority. This is driven at the consumer level, feeding into corporate strategy – customers prefer to use green data centres while the c-suite drives to meet increasingly tightening emissions targets.

What can help meet these priorities?

One potential fix to the skills shortage is investing in more digitalised equipment. Digital equipment is easier to use, service, and maintain. This means previously complex tasks no longer need to be carried out by senior engineers and technicians, but can be completed by relative novices.

One example is the time operators and technicians spend digging through manuals for a solution. Modern solutions integrate augmented reality (AR) to provide operators with support. Viewing through their smartphone’s camera, an operator gets first-level support by viewing the instructions directly over the equipment in AR – it’s like Pokémon Go for data centre troubleshooting.

If that isn’t enough to fix the problem, then the operator can use the same interface to call for remote, second-level support. A remote technician can then view through the camera and overlay their own instructions and annotations on the screen.

Our remote AR solution was born out of Covid-19, but we’re now realising that it also means the availability of experienced technicians is no longer needed to fix complex problems. This can reduce emissions and costs by eliminating site visits from external support teams and, if the issue could cause an outage, then a fast response might save millions.

What more can digitalisation do?

Most modern electrical equipment is now cloud-connected. This gives data centres real-time data to analyse, helping them optimise processes and thus reduce costs.

Digital data gathering of motors powering fans and pumps can be connected to the cloud, giving operators remote insight into potential issues before they arise. Small vibrations or other subtle differences can be picked up, enabling rapid, condition-based maintenance to prevent equipment failure and eventual downtime. Operators can then spend more time focusing on maintaining critical equipment.

This allows issues to be identified (and resolved) quicker and in turn saves money vs ‘break fix’ or calendar-based maintenance. By putting the emphasis on preventative maintenance, digitalised data centres can focus their technicians’ time on maintaining critical equipment.

The same approach can monitor the energy usage of the data centre’s equipment. Digitalisation helps manage where energy is being used, so that it can be optimised. This avoids wasted energy and helps data centres more easily meet their sustainability targets.

Other data centre equipment, like battery energy storage systems (BESS) are also becoming more digitalised. Modern systems can see how the batteries are loading and unloading to ensure they always have sufficient available capacity to support critical loads.

You mentioned BESS, are these now more viable at scale?

Yes. Prices of lithium-ion (Li-ion) cells are around a fifth of what they were in 2013 in terms of kilowatt-hour (kWh) – mostly down to technological innovation driven by the electric vehicle sector. These low prices mean that it’s possible to use BESS at a much larger scale than previously.

Though, I’d argue the prices won’t likely go down again for another few years – they may even increase slightly. With the rising market of frequency regulation, load shedding, and other ancillary services for utilities, BESS’s payback period is also decreasing. So, now’s the best time to invest in BESS.

What are the key benefits to data centres using a BESS?

The energy stored in a BESS provides the capacity to delay the start-up of generators and maximises the amount of renewable energy that can be used to power the data centre. So a BESS can help you get closer to net-zero targets and meet regulations.

A downside of data centres is that they take up grid capacity, which can restrict the power supply to homes and businesses. This leads to additional pressure on data centre operators.

A BESS can counter this by providing load shifting and frequency response to distribution network operators (DNOs). For example, to combat grid capacity bottlenecks, a utility can employ a data centre’s BESS to help with load shifting. This can aid in negotiations with utilities, particularly in countries with limited grid capacity like the UK, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

A BESS can also help to integrate renewable energy by buffering the intermittent energy from renewable sources like wind and solar through frequency response. This can also generate additional revenue.

Clever use of technology can also make negotiating with governments easier. For example, by adopting modular construction in 10-20 MW blocks, an operator can build up a data centre over 10 years. This prospect is much easier for governments to permit than immediately installing 200 MW of capacity. It also helps the data centre – capacity can be increased as more customers are onboarded, optimising revenue stream and avoiding wasted capacity.

Data centres can contribute to the energy transition by making their spare battery capacity available to support the integration of renewables, ensuring power continuity.

Danel Turk
Danel Turk
Global Segment Leader for Data Centres at ABB

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