West London datacentres: What can be done to ease the pressure on the grid?

In this guest post, Ian Shearer, managing director for Asia-Pacific and Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Park Place Technologies, weighs in on what can be done to reduce the impact that datacentres have on local electricity grids

The news that the Greater London Authority (GLA) has informed developers that new, large-scale housing projects in West London could face delays when being hooked up to the local electricity grid due to “capacity constraints” has potential repercussions right across local and central government.

The constraints are being pinned, in part, to the large numbers of datacentres now operating in the region, with the Authority predicting it could take more than a decade to enhance grid capacity.

It’s no secret that datacentres with their requirement for always-on compute, consume more electricity than domestic consumers. But when desperately needed housing developments are potentially put on hold until 2035, it feels like a PR crisis for the datacentre industry. But can this impending dilemma be entirely laid at the door of datacentres?

There is no doubt that shared datacentre facilities in the area are enjoying increased popularity with co-location and hosted datacentre hubs located at the Virtus, Ark and ReWire campuses.

The GLA notes these datacentres consume the “equivalent of small cities…to power servers and to ensure resilience in service.” But this only tells the story locally. Contrastingly, if you take a viewpoint that looks across the wider picture across the capital, having deep concentrations of computing resources in shared configurations is significantly more efficient on overall grid consumption than running individual locally hosted datacentres spread across the whole of London.

So, of primary focus, and at a government level, should be the investment and speeding up of upgrade improvements to power networks from the National Grid and local electricity and distribution provider, SSEN.

Park Place Technologies frequently advises datacentre leads on how to decrease consumption, allowing datacentre hubs such as those in West London and along the M4 corridor to actively increase their own consumption-cutting efforts and focus on green efficiencies gained by using merged facilities.

Good examples of savings can be seen across the infrastructure. Examples include amalgamation of power support infrastructures such as individual Uninterruptible Power Supplies. In this case, instead, these power protection plants are consolidated and used more efficiently, or even replaced by efficient technology that would be out of reach for smaller datacentres, such as fly wheels.

Additionally, consumption of alternate and supplementary power options can be made more efficient (or even self-sustaining) when technology such as solar power and wind power can be deployed onsite and at an affordable scale, decreasing the drag on the grid. Local energy generation and local storage of power for peak times are now key imperatives. Cooling too used to require significant energy consumption overhead, but alternatives can now be delivered in unique ways, such as liquid cooling, which are more efficient and affordable at scale.

Forward-thinking datacentre operators argue it is not just about lowering energy consumption, it’s also about how waste products are treated that will allow us a glimpse of the future positive carbon impacts that datacentres can now achieve through waste heat utilisation.

Relatively new design concepts, such as datacentres offering Energy Reuse Effectiveness (ERE), provide server farms with the opportunity to switch from mass users to serious energy suppliers. This exciting approach to dealing with waste heat is set to be an important offsetting step to reach a future energy goal. For instance, in the Nordics by 2035, it’s envisaged that the heat waste generated from the cities’ large Stockholm Data Parks development will go on to heat 10% of the city.  This usage model is also central to the government’s plan for UK net-zero by 2030.

With such positive locally generated initiatives now available for datacentres – especially those being built from the ground up – the industry has an exciting opportunity to reverse consumption trends and to allow domestic planning to regain priority. But it will need scrutiny, help and adherence to carbon efficiencies and on an ongoing basis. And while the industry catches up across the next few years, this won’t be the first instance of local authorities being forced to prioritise between domestic or commercial grid supply.

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