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Addressing the AI-driven surge in data centre power demand

Image: Adobe Stock / PRASANNAPIX

Danel Turk, Data Centres Portfolio Manager at ABB, discusses key considerations for data centre managers and operators looking to build, grow or expand their facilities in a cost-effective, sustainable way.

One of the biggest challenges facing data centres today is the growing power demand from an increasing reliance on digital services and AI. For example, data centres are predicted to account for 28% of Ireland’s national demand by 2031, according to EirGrid, and 15% of Denmark’s by 2030, according to the IEA.

The explosion of AI services – such as ChatGPT – are a big cause of increasing power demand and will continue to be as AI develops. An estimate places AI’s annual energy consumption between 85 and 134 terawatt-hours (TWh) by 2027 – equivalent to that of the Netherlands or 0.5% of global energy consumption.

Given the urgent requirement to accommodate this, what strategies can data centre operators employ to meet their sustainability goals cost-effectively?

Think ‘total cost of ownership

The first thing that should underline any consideration for growth is a total cost of ownership (TCO) mindset.

Compared to a more traditional view of separating capital and operational expenditure, TCO involves calculating and assessing all direct and indirect costs associated with acquiring, operating, and maintaining an asset over its entire lifecycle. In other words, a TCO mindset sees future operating cost savings as net present value.

For example, investing more in power protection and conditioning equipment – like an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) – proactively maximises efficiencies, optimises energy consumption, and minimises the risk of costly downtime. Similarly, if a piece of equipment will be running nonstop for 15 or 20 years, investing in a more energy efficient model will result in significant long-term cost and emissions savings.

As global power demand for data centres increases, operators that adopt a TCO mindset will maximise their long-term energy and cost savings.

Embracing modularity

One consideration is modularity. When building a new data centre or expanding an existing one, rather than doing it all at once, modular solutions enable data centres to build in blocks. For example, building up a projected 200-megawatt (MW) data centre in 20 MW sections.

A modular approach helps when negotiating with the local utility and government, as they are more likely to approve smaller incremental growth.

This kind of scalability allows data centres to grow sustainably with demand and availability of power while simplifying the specification and installation process. It’s cost-effective because you can increase demand as more customers are onboarded. This avoids wasted capacity and optimises your revenue stream.

Modular, prefabricated products – such as, eHouses and skids – are built off-site and factory tested before being delivered as an integrated solution. This minimises risk of issues and potential downtime.

They also incorporate standard blocks of power which can be repeated easily. This means they can be installed and commissioned quickly and efficiently.

Additional cost-savings can also be achieved by saving on shipping and installation when buying one prefabricated product rather than lots of individual components that require assembly.

Moving to medium voltage

A rise in power demand is also making medium-voltage (MV) equipment increasingly viable and cost-effective. For example, compared to a low-voltage (LV) UPS, an MV UPS can provide power protection for the whole data centre, not just the racks. They are also typically more energy efficient than their LV counterparts, resulting in long-term cost savings and a better TCO.

MV UPSs can also be installed in a modular way. This avoids having dozens of LV UPSs that require regular servicing and maintenance, making MV technology more cost-effective. For example, you can parallel 10, 2.5 megawatt (MVA) UPS blocks to create a 25 MVA system. Doing this enables fast deployment of additional units, increasing overall system capacity without additional complexity. This also facilitates cables with a smaller cross-section, minimising upfront expenditure and improving TCO.

Better with BESS

Increasing power demand places pressure on data centre operators to stay sustainable as they expand. Battery energy storage systems (BESS) can help here by reducing the need for diesel gensets as they facilitate the integration of renewable energy sources, like wind and solar.

However, four hours of uptime would need a lot of batteries, so it’s important to define what you need to avoid over-specifying. For example, a BESS could optimise renewables by storing excess energy from solar panels for later use.

As data centres demand more and more power, less is available for surrounding homes and businesses. A BESS can combat this pressure on data centres by providing load shifting and frequency response to the grid – helping negotiation with the local utility, and potentially creating new revenue streams via give-back schemes during times of peak demand.

AI’s growing impact

While AI is driving power demand, ironically it can also help make data centres more reliable, productive, and efficient through optimised cooling, predictive condition monitoring, data access and transfer, and demand balancing.

The first step in achieving this is connectivity. A typical mid-to-large data centre will have hundreds of thousands of monitoring points. An automation system running an AI suite can keep track of all these at the same time and provide operators a holistic overview of data centre performance – including energy use and asset health.

For example, it can provide operators with a view of the whole cooling system – both the upstream chiller and the distribution system. These are often viewed in a siloed way, so that any operator making an efficiency improvement to one could be lowering the efficiency of the other. An automation system lets operators see holistically how one affects the other. So, operators can make more informed decisions that aim to improve the efficiency of the entire system.

Keeping an eye on SF6

Impending regulations are looking to remove SF6 from electrical equipment because it can leak to the atmosphere, where it has a global warming potential around 25,000 times greater than CO2. Besides getting ahead of regulations, moving to SF6-free equipment makes sustainability reporting easier and can be more straightforward to maintain and recycle at the end of its life.

Making an impact

By considering these strategic approaches, data centre managers and operators can meet growing power demands while also maintaining their commitment to sustainability and controlling costs. As the need for AI and digital services grows, these practices will be pivotal in ensuring that data centres contribute positively to the global energy landscape.

Danel Turk
Danel Turk
Data Centres Portfolio Manager at ABB

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