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From consumer to prosumer: Reducing the datacentre industry’s reliance on the national grid

With the government ramping up plans to go net zero on carbon emissions by 2050, where does the datacentre industry stand – and how can it become more sustainable over the coming years?

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There is mounting pressure on datacentre operators to take appropriate steps to support the government’s pledge to cut the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, many of which were recently outlined in a report by trade body TechUK.

These steps include encouraging operators to reduce their reliance on the national grid during times of high demand, and revamp their operations so they can produce their own power and, in the process, become energy prosumers too.

This is far from a new idea, with the concept talked about in the industry for several years now, but very few, if any, operators appear to be on board. So much so that the TechUK report claims the industry is still 100% dependent on the grid.

This is despite the fact that operators usually have idle energy stores on-site, in the form of backup generators, that could be put to use for the process.

And, given the huge amounts of money sloshing around the industry, there are numerous players who have the resources to invest in renewable energy generation schemes that could generate power that could be passed back to the grid.

But there appears to be a reluctance within the industry to get on board with these ideas. But why?

Emma Fryer, associate director of datacentres at TechUK, says a big part of the problem is that operators are restricted in what they can do by the legislative landscape.

“Datacentres in the UK probably have around 2GW of embedded emergency capacity in the form of diesel generators,” she says. “While these are largely not installed in a way that allows them to provide power directly to the grid, datacentres can contribute to load balancing, or demand-side response [DSR], by moving to generator supply and thus releasing capacity back into the grid by not drawing electricity.”

Air quality laws

But such practices are constrained by air quality laws, making it difficult for operators to become energy-efficient in this way.

“The Medium Combustion Plant Directive has been applied in the UK in tandem with additional domestic measures [Specified Generator Controls] that require abatement to be fitted to any diesel generators being used electively or for commercial gain, however rarely,” says Fryer. “All forms of DSR are classified by the Environment Agency as elective generation.”

Abatement is costly, complex and can impact generator performance, says Fryer. “Air quality, especially the impacts of oxides of nitrogen [NOx], is politically sensitive in the UK. NOx is harmful to health, shortens lives and exacerbates existing respiratory conditions and the UK regularly breaches both local and national NOx thresholds. The real reason for this is the increase in diesel vehicles on our roads, which is the result of government policy,” she says.

“While the datacentre sector makes a negligible contribution to these totals, there is potential for large arrays to have short-term local impacts and if levels are already high due to vehicle exhausts, then the result could be a local exceedance. The government is therefore very strongly focused on regulating all point sources.”

An evolving industry

For operators to move away from the grid and become greener, Fryer believes they must address challenges around climate change, resource scarcity and pollution. However, she points out that some progress is being made and that organisations are starting to see the benefits of renewable energy.

“Over 75% of the power purchased by operators in the UK is renewable, and while that currently doesn’t generate additional supply, Google and Microsoft and others are adopting power purchase agreements, which does,” says Fryer.

“Large operators like Equinix, Digital Realty and Microsoft are developing fuel-cell technology. And there are all sorts of trials under way on reducing energy use from Microsoft’s underwater datacentre to the Boden project.”

The latter is an EU Horizon 2020-backed initiative, geared towards creating a prototype datacentre in Boden, Sweden, that is not only energy-efficient to run and is powered by renewable sources, but is also operated throughout its life in a sustainable way.

Read more about datacentre sustainability

There is also a high degree of uptake among the operator community of industry standards, such as the EN 50600 certification series, and best practice tools such as the EU code of conduct for datacentres, says Fryer.

But, over the coming years, she expects the tide to turn and datacentre will begin moving away from being purely large consumers of power to playing a more dynamic role in the energy market. 

“Datacentre operators are already large anchor customers of renewables, and I anticipate that they will increasingly adopt power purchase agreements to drive additional, utility scale, renewable generation,” says Fryer.

Advancements in battery and fuel-cell technology will play an important role in boosting the overall sustainability of the sector, she says. “While embedded diesel generation is not deployable for load balancing, battery technology is improving rapidly and, in time, improved energy storage options should enable datacentres to play a more active role in facilitating a more distributed grid and accommodating a large share of intermittent renewables,” Fryer adds.

“Fuel cells, while not carbon neutral, also present a lower carbon route and, if used in conjunction with battery storage, could enable datacentres to become genuine prosumers in the energy market.”

Sustainability vs economics

Of course, these solutions are not always cheap. Christopher Brown, chief technical officer at  datacentre resiliency think-tank the Uptime Institute, says a real issue in the debate is not the sector’s reliance on the national grid, but rather the economics involved in adopting a prosumer model.

“It is more economical to consume power from the grid than it is to produce one’s own power on-site,” he says. “For example, some datacentre owners/operators are using solar systems to offset or trim their consumption needs from the grid.  But this practice has been slowed by the cost of the equipment and space needed to make a significant impact on the amount of power required from the grid.”

Brown says that while large companies will make investments with a limited return in order to offset public perception, many datacentre firms have tighter budgets and require a faster return on their investments. “It is not until technology advances come more into fruition to reduce both cost and space required, that companies will be better ready to embrace the use of on-site sustainable technologies,” he adds.

“The stresses on public power grids are ever-increasing as everyone is demanding more and more power.  The datacentre industry should be, and wants to be, a better partner to find more ways to improve the situation, but due to economics, it is going to take some time.”

Despite these challenges, many operators are making progress towards making the way they operate more environmentally friendly. Colocation giant Digital Realty, for instance, has invested in a range of sustainability initiatives across its global operations.

What are the operators doing?

Aaron Binkley, senior director of sustainability at Digital Realty, says the firm is: developing sustainably certified green datacentres; trialling and implementing innovative technology in its datacentres to optimise cooling and reduce power usage; and collaborating with local planners to find ways to export waste heat from thermal wells to nearby housing developments.

The datacentre firm is already reaping rewards from these efforts, he says. “Our efforts so far have led to all our Europe, Middle East and Africa [EMEA] datacentres using 100% renewable, zero-carbon electricity,” says Binkley.

“But we are not just thinking about today. Last year, we established the Energy Governance Board, dedicated to overseeing energy and related environment stewardship to ensure we are continuing to move in the right direction and plan for the future.

“Ultimately, we see green-designed, efficiently operated and renewably powered datacentres as key to a datacentre industry that meets the needs of its customers while treading lightly on the environment and providing benefits to local communities.”

Equinix is another datacentre firm investing significant sums into sustainability efforts. Since 2011, the operator claims to have spent more than $100m on energy-efficiency upgrades and retrofits to reduce overall energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Prioritise sustainability

“Our datacentres are designed with power effectiveness and sustainability front of mind,” says Michael Winterson, managing director of Equinix Services. “And when our sites are built from scratch, we can use advanced techniques that prioritise sustainability from both an operational and environmental perspective.

“Initiatives include indirect evaporative cooling, indirect heat exchangers, rainwater harvesting and air handling units, as well as bore holes to underground water sources. Implementing these technologies has helped some of our sites achieve a power usage effectiveness [PUE] rating of 1.2 – a figure well below the industry average.”

These investments have resulted in tangible benefits for the company and its customers, says Winterson. “Our entire UK footprint uses 100% renewable electricity from mixed sources through a utility green programme,” he says.

“In 2018, 90% of our global energy requirements were met with clean and renewable energy, but we are fully committed to increasing this figure even further.”

As the issue of global warming gains further prevalence, governments and campaigners are likely to continue to exert pressure on companies in all industries to become more sustainable. For datacentre operators in particular, global warming poses a major threat to the way they operate. So it is vital that they take steps to go net zero, reduce their reliance on the national grid and use more sustainable forms of energy.

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