Clean power for data centres

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Regionally dispersed smaller and micro data centres are poised to become more commonplace, which creates a need for onsite power generation technologies for these facilities, says Pritil Gunjan. [CommScope / Flickr]

As big data, digital content, and e-commerce continue to drive explosive growth in power demand for data centres, it is crucial to understand the reliability and sustainability of power supplied to these facilities, writes Pritil Gunjan.

Pritil Gunjan is a senior research analyst with Navigant Research. In her latest report, she evaluated reliable power generation models for data centres.

Data centre infrastructures are likely to become more distributed as edge computing gains momentum. Regionally dispersed smaller and microdata centres are poised to become more commonplace, which creates a need for onsite power generation technologies for these facilities. Increasing demand to deploy clean energy sources has led to renewed interest in corporate renewable power purchase agreements.

Clean energy sourced from utilities and independent power producers varies widely across regions, however, and may include a considerable proportion of electricity generated by plants that use fossil fuel. Therefore, the perceived benefits of distributed energy resources (DER like gensets, wind, and solar PV) for both primary and critical power supply are gaining attention amongst data centre operators.

Procurement issues

Defining a clean power generation model enables data centres to address two ongoing power procurement issues:

  • It can dramatically improve the reliability and stability of power across geographies, especially in regions of poor grid infrastructure.
  • It can minimise dependence on fossil fuels while restricting greenhouse gas emissions.

[Sources: Navigant Research]

In the past, business continuity and disaster recovery programs across data centres typically included installing a diesel generator set (genset).

However, rising energy consciousness, increasing demand to reduce carbon footprint, and the transition to a cleaner energy source will drive market opportunities for sustainable and renewable DER technologies for critical and prime power needs.

An interesting market trend involves technological investments in gas gensets for prime and standby applications. Equipment manufacturers claim that gas generators have considerably increased load acceptance capabilities whilst heat generated through cogeneration can improve thermal efficiency of data centres.

Also, natural gas is considered a clean source of fuel compared to diesel, which drives rising interest in gas power generation to provide a resilient and robust solution for data centre power—especially during long-term outages. Revenue decoupling programs and load balancing initiatives can further increase the viability of DER for onsite generation.

Growing market

Navigant Research expects the global market for clean sustainable power generation in data centres to reach a cumulative total of $50.7 billion in revenue between 2018 and 2027. Substantial new capacity additions in Asia Pacific will likely drive this growth.

[Sources: Navigant Research]

OEMs and technology vendors are reporting significantly more interest in offering integrated solutions for both prime and backup power demand. Many adoption barriers are due to perception and lack of knowledge issues that are dissipating quickly. In emerging countries in Asia Pacific, there is growing interest in relying on hybrid gas-diesel configurations, and the combination is used to offset power demand during grid congestions and emergency outages.

Navigant Research’s report, Sustainable and Renewable Power Generation for Global Data Centers, evaluates various sustainable power generation models for data centres, with a focus on sizing the distributed power technology segments and its applications across primary and critical power usage. The report also summarizes the following recommendations for OEMs and data centre owners:

  • Hybrid renewable energy solutions: A combination of utility-interactive and onsite generation technologies can offer significant cost advantages over traditional power generation models.
  • New business models: New business models enable efficiency and reduce capital costs for primary and critical power generation. Early adopters can build a compelling and successful business case for a futuristic Energy Cloud based on rapid, turnkey installations of integrated DER solutions.
  • Demand response and grid interactivity: Grid interactivity enhances the total cost of ownership for distributed generation technologies. Local distributed power will be used as the primary power supply whilst the grid-connected power is only used as a backup during grid failure and outages.

Integrated solutions have an economic advantage

Energy procurement is complex. Changing market dynamics, supply and demand scenarios, and legislative changes have significant effects on the power generation models adopted by the industry. Due to the scale of investments required to generate onsite power, the distributed generation market for data centres is in its infancy.

Yet, grid-integrative and integrated DER solutions have an economic advantage over grid-reliant power for these facilities. As distributed generation continues to gain traction globally, data centre owners will increasingly adopt sustainable onsite solutions for their energy needs.

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