DCD Focus: Wire walking with power

General Manager Leo Craig, explores the balancing act between dwindling power availability and higher data centre power demand.dcd

There is no doubt that power supplies in the UK are dwindling year by year but demand on the National Grid continues to grow. During the last three years alone, 15 power stations have been decommissioned but worryingly, Ofgem predict that electricity demand is set to double by 2050. Clear pleas from industry state that billions of pounds worth of investment will be required to bolster the energy network infrastructure in the next five years to deal with these increases. Here, I explore the challenging energy landscape and the part the data centre has to play in all of this, including new ways of integrating into the power grid and other technologies to help support this growing problem.

The energy landscape in 2015

Three years ago, the National Grid had 17 per cent spare capacity to feed the UK. Last winter, it reduced to five per cent and this year it is down to four per cent. This concerning decline in energy reserve in the UK means increased risk of blackouts and further strain on the stability of the National Grid as it looks to switch between the grid and renewables. Whilst the addition of renewables such as wind or solar will go a long way in supporting the grid, it may be ambitious to achieve targets of 15 per cent of final energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020. With the closure of power stations, additional power generation is needed and although Hinkley Point power station is likely to go ahead in future, it won’t be operational for at least ten years yet. So before this, we have ten years of declining energy reserves – the impact is bound to affect businesses right across the UK.

Taking the strain off the networks

With recent reports stating that data centre / IT professionals feel that the reliability of power in the UK is a ‘major concern’ over the next ten years, now is the time for them to take responsibility and work with the National Grid. This can be on two levels – firstly by ensuring the data centre is running as efficiently as possible and not drawing as much energy from the National Grid. Secondly, data centres can actually help at times of peak demand by utilising their stand-by generators and going ‘off grid’.

I think we will see more data centres taking up ‘triad’ or ‘smart’ contracts with Distribution Network Operators (DNOs). This means that when demand from the grid is high, instead of cutting power from a facility without warning, the data centre receives a request from the DNO to remove itself from the grid and use generators instead to support the data centre.

The only problem with this is the stand-by generators are run using fossil fuels, thereby increasing carbon emissions, which is the very reason so many power stations have closed because of their high carbon emissions.

Storing energy via new technology

Using Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries with the UPS also presents an opportunity to use the UPS as an energy accumulator which allows the data centre to use stored power during times of peak demand. Li-ion batteries have greater cyclic properties (10,000 cycles compared to valve-regulated lead acid batteries at 500 cycles) and are 50 per cent smaller than VRLA batteries. They also have a faster rate of recharge which makes them suitable for energy storage applications.

Traditionally, the UPS has only been used on critical loads within the data centre with other services such as air handing relying on a generator for emergency power. It is still essential that the UPS operating in ‘online operation’ mode supports the critical loads to continue to protect against the increasing micro breaks and spikes caused by increased grid switching due to our greater reliance on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

There is now the possibility to support the other services with a UPS and Li-ion batteries with the UPS in ‘offline’ or ‘emergency standby’ mode. This means the UPS is running at 99.5 per cent efficiency and is effectively acting as an energy accumulator and can be used in power outages. If, for example, the datacentre is working on a smart grid contract it will allow the data centre to take itself offline without utilising its standby generators. Li-ion batteries now give data centres the ability to store sufficient power capacity to keep the data centre running for 30 to 60 minutes or more without having to run the generator.

Taking the modular approach in DC design

Greater consideration around data centre design will go some way in future proofing facilities from any changes to the aging power distribution network. There is a growing trend in modular design which offers the maximum in availability, scalability, reliability and serviceability whilst also offering high efficiency, low cost of ownership and a high power density as space is always a premium in the modern datacentre. Modular topology allows for flexibility and ease for expansion in data centres ranging in size from micro to large scale.

EU directives and the impact on businesses

The date for when European directives on energy management will come into force is approaching faster than we think with 2016 the year when key legislation is expected to be brought in. This will force businesses to undergo an energy audit to ensure they are doing their part to reduce power consumption. Ahead of this, the European Commission has created the ‘Code of Conduct for Energy Efficiency in a data centre’ which details voluntary measures for data centres to consider the environmental impact of their operations. Whilst this is voluntary at the moment, the measures are expected to form the basis of more stringent legislation in the future.

Powering the data centre of the future

With a continued reliance on the internet and vast amounts of data out there, it is clear that there will be more demand placed on data centres. This reliance on data centres mean that the UPS will continue to play a vital role in the power chain but the role will go beyond simply back up power and focus on the additional benefits to businesses. With no significant new generating capacity for the National Grid over the next ten years, businesses need to keep at the forefront of their mind how they can manage and protect the power to our data centres in the future whilst also helping the UK to meet its carbon reduction targets.