Data centres are an essential part of 21st century life, enabling online collaboration, data processing and storage. They are also power-hungry and must innovate to work within electricity grid constraints.
While they may have a bad reputation, in fact there is a lot that data centres can do to advance the net zero agenda. In this blog, we review recent trends that will help keep data centres operating, data flowing and the lights on for the rest of us.
Data centres vary in size quite a bit. The largest are vast, warehouse style premises that house the IT infrastructure required to store and process data. They are often dark, temperature controlled, rather rarefied spaces full of the physical servers that are home to the ‘cloud’, or essentially the internet. It is through data centres that we can share access to applications, and data from social media, emails, medical monitoring devices, banking, gaming – the list is almost endless. If you can access an application or data via a smart phone or a computer, then it is likely that it is stored somewhere in a data centre. Data centres have become an essential enabler of the digital economy and society as we know it.
Data centres come in different forms including on premises, co-located and hosted. In their largest form, they are known as hyperscale data centres, which tend to be planned and operated by tech-giants like Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft. To qualify for the name, a data centre must be at least 930 square meters square and house a minimum of 5,000 servers.
As the global demand for data and internet services grows, so too does the number of hyperscalers and choosing suitable locations for new centres can be tricky. They are large and they are also energy intensive. The IEA states data centres already account for about 1.3% of global final electricity demand and rising rapidly. Where you get multiple facilities located close together, there are significant impacts on the local electricity grid and its ability to meet demand.
Ireland is a leading major data centre location with 70 data centres currently in operation. But powering so many energy-intensive facilities has put untenable strain on the electricity infrastructure in Greater Dublin and forced the Irish grid operator, EirGrid, to ban future data centre development in the area until 2028. Data centre energy usage is already high, and Eirgrid predicts it could account for a quarter of Ireland’s electricity usage by 2030.
In 2021, Ireland introduced new, tighter regulations that require new data centre developments to ensure their energy usage is efficient, does not exceed available capacity and that they deploy strategies to actively help alleviate grid constraints. It is likely other countries with growing numbers of data centres will follow suit.
We all rely on the services of data centres to operate day to day and to keep pace with evolving demands, although data centres find themselves in a position where they must innovate to succeed and thrive. They need to reduce their energy consumption, focus on sustainability to help meet Net Zero ambitions and find ways to support the grid.
IT infrastructure in data centres only works within an optimal heat and humidity range and generates a huge amount of heat. An average hyperscaler consumes 20-50MW annually – that is about as much electricity as is required to power up to 37,000 homes – much of which is dedicated to cooling.
Locating data centres in colder environments is one way of lowering the cooling bill, but the increasing frequency of hot weather in Europe is causing challenges for existing facilities. In 2018, Microsoft successfully tested a subsea data centre for two years off the Orkney Islands, Scotland. Subsea solutions, although potentially attractive to improve cooling costs, have not gained a huge amount of traction to date.
Some data centres are embracing the heat they produce and finding innovative ways to use it positively. In 2023, a small-scale UK data centre in a sports centre in Devon started to provide free heating for the swimming pool. On a larger scale, a World Economic Forum article features tech companies that are using data centres to heat homes, thereby reducing home-owners reliance on gas, cutting heating bills and reducing CO2.
Sustainability and energy efficiency are both top priorities for data centre operators to help mitigate rising energy costs, comply with new regulation and progress towards ESG and Net Zero ambitions.
Procuring renewable energy through purchase agreements is an increasingly popular way for data centres to reduce their emissions and achieve ESG goals. In 2022, Google signed an agreement with a Scottish Offshore Wind Farm for 100MW. The deal will see Google UK operate on or near 90% carbon-free energy by 2025 – significant progress towards its goal of operating entirely on carbon-free energy by 2030.
Onsite renewable solutions are also an attractive source of power. Google has signed an agreement to combine energy from a 350MW solar plant with 280MW battery storage system to power a data centre in Nevada. Data centres require uninterruptable power supplies (UPS) to ensure business continuity, and many operators install onsite generation or battery storage systems to take over in the event of a power cut.
Accommodating increasing amounts of intermittent renewable energy on the system creates new challenges for electricity network operators who must constantly balance supply with demand, even when the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing. And supporting the grid in these circumstances is where data centres can really start to excel.
Data centres can help alleviate stress on the grid by switching to their UPS, which may be generation assets or battery storage, at times of peak usage when available generation is not able to meet demand. This cooperation with grid operators takes place through Demand Side Response programmes and is beneficial to data centre operators, grid operators and all electricity consumers in the region who benefit from a more stable electricity system and fewer power cuts.
Microsoft has successfully used the battery storage system at one of its data centres in Ireland to support EirGrid by participating in a market for grid services that prioritises non-carbon-emitting solutions. Microsoft is participating in this market through Enel X, an energy services and solutions provider that aggregates industrial and commercial energy consumers into virtual power plants. When there is a dip in renewable reserves, the data centre switches to its batteries to reduce the electricity load on the system.
Data centres have become an essential fourth utility, supplying services that society relies on 24/7. We all want access to the cloud, to enable our online activities and to store increasing amounts of data. But data centres must innovate to find ways to live harmoniously within the constraints of the existing grid infrastructure. Seeking cooler sites to ensure the appropriate temperature and humidity is maintained efficiently may help, but it is not always possible or practical to establish centres in cold or subsea locations.
Collaboration between data centre and grid operators is already essential and will increase. With the right technology and suitable partners, data centres will become an integral part of the grid balancing system, playing a vital role in demand side response programmes and helping to keep the lights on for everyone.
Procuring energy from renewable projects will certainly continue as a tried and tested method of reducing emissions, and the installation of renewable generation on site or near to data centres will become more popular, both to improve sustainability and energy security and also to mitigate high energy costs.
We are, also, likely to see more collaboration with homes, business and public buildings to make better use of the heat generated by the IT infrastructure within data centres.
One thing is for sure – collaboration is key.