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How data centres are navigating the new energy landscape

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Tim Hysell, CEO and Co-founder of ZincFive, explains how the changing energy landscape is pushing data centres to re-prioritise power, space and resiliency.

As the use of generative AI rapidly spreads throughout the workforce, this technological leap is shaping the future of data centres. Skyrocketing data demands require more efficient facility designs and layouts, a stronger emphasis on sustainability, and enhanced resiliency against emerging climate and security challenges. For data centre operators, the journey ahead is not just adapting to technological advancements, but also pioneering efficiency, sustainability, and security for the next generation of AI technology.

Managing the consequences of more power

The rapid integration of generative AI into our digital infrastructure is pushing data centres to their limits, necessitating a significant escalation in power capacity. With an anticipated increase of over 50% this year alone, the demand for AI computation is effectively doubling the power density need for data centre racks; the average power draw per rack is expected to leap from about 15 kilowatts to more than 50 kilowatts for AI-equipped racks.

This dramatic shift in energy use is resulting in more heat generated by data centre operations. To mitigate the risk of overheating equipment, data centres will have no choice but to adopt new cooling strategies or invest in technology that can operate at increased temperatures.

For instance, modern battery technologies offer data centres the ability to operate at higher ambient temperatures compared to traditional lead-acid batteries, which can only operate safely up to 25°C. Lithium batteries can often operate up to 30°C while nickel-zinc (NiZn) batteries can reach up to 35°C, with allowances for temporary excursions up to 50°C. Incorporating batteries with a higher tolerance for heat allows data centres to operate at higher temperatures, saving on cooling costs while safely managing the heat generated by generative AI data demand.

More efficient use of space

Adapting to the surge in power and cooling needs, data centres are also incorporating higher rack densities, ranging from 25 to over 100 kW. This shift requires a strategic overhaul in layout design to ensure efficient cooling and access while optimising the use of valuable real estate. The larger the data centre’s footprint, the more expensive it is to manage and maintain. To maximise profitability, it’s essential to do more with less space.

Maximising physical space leads to more efficient operations. Minimising unprofitable grey space with smaller, power-dense equipment allows operators to maximise the profit-driving white space. Upgrading to more efficient infrastructure equipment can be costly initially but leads to significant reduction in total cost of ownership (TCO).

For example, modular data centres can reduce the footprint and cost of containerised electrical rooms by using smaller, more power-dense equipment. Modular data centres offer flexibility, scalability, faster and more cost-effective construction, better quality, and greater customisation. They can be deployed in almost any location and can be added to over time, allowing for real-time alignment with capital and operational resources. They are built and tested in the factory, providing more consistent quality and lower cost.

Modular data centres also allow for more customisation, with owners able to mix and match components to meet their needs and adapt to cost, space, and other considerations. In addition, a modular design supports sustainable construction and operation of a data centre since components are only added when needed.

More sustainable solutions

Accounting for 2% of global energy demand and up to 3.7% of global carbon emissions, data centres are under growing pressure and regulation to adopt more sustainable practices – even as they’re also expected to double capacity by 2040. As data centre clients come under increasing environmental scrutiny, 75% of companies have recently ramped up their sustainability spending; integrating sustainable solutions has shifted from a nice-to-have to an essential operational mandate. As the appetite for Scope 3 emissions disclosure increases, data centres should look to improve their value by adopting sustainable practices.

Data centres can explore sustainable strategies including on-site clean energy generation, emissions-free fuels like green hydrogen, and integrating more sustainable, energy-efficient components. For example, nickel-zinc batteries’ lifetime greenhouse gas emissions are four times lower than lead-acid and six times lower than lithium-ion emissions, using up to 90% less water over their lifecycle and relying on non-toxic, earth-abundant materials instead of toxic or controversially mined elements like lead and lithium. Such batteries can be incorporated into a data centre’s UPS energy storage system. Utilising similar sustainable technologies and practices will be key to reducing facilities’ carbon footprint.

Greater resiliency against outages

Power disruptions are the biggest cause of outages for data centres, and their prevention continues to be a priority for the industry, especially with the increased reliance on constant access to data.

The batteries that are at the core of these backup power systems play a vital role in supporting data centre uptime, meaning the right choice in chemistry type is crucial to ensuring the effectiveness of these redundancy investments. The right battery can be the reason expensive disruptions and repairs are reduced.

In response to the need for more reliable uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, operators have been turning to alternatives to lead-acid batteries. For example, unlike incumbent UPS battery types, when a NiZn cell becomes weak or depleted, it remains conductive, allowing the rest of the battery string to continue operating. This drastically reduces the risk of battery downtime, protecting data centres from costly outages and emergency equipment replacements.

Hyperscale data centres have another option for backup power as well: rack-level battery backup can overcome some of the challenges of centralised backup, such as excess heat and conversion losses. Rack-level backup both saves significant space and power in hyperscale data centres and improves reliability. While a centralised UPS approach often impacts significant segments of downstream equipment, rack-level backup limits any effects from one faulty BBU to a single rack.

The future of data centres

The data centre industry’s shift towards AI-driven demand, efficient spatial utilisation, sustainability, and resilient power solutions underscores the sector’s readiness to embrace the future. Innovations like nickel-zinc batteries and sustainable practices reflect a dual commitment to environmental stewardship along with operational excellence.

As these trends converge, they pave the way for data centres that are not only more capable and reliable but also more in alignment with our global sustainability goals, setting a new standard for the digital infrastructure of tomorrow.

Picture of Tim Hysell
Tim Hysell
CEO & Co-founder of ZincFive

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