Addressing changing power priorities and alternative fuel strategies for Cloud scale data centres

Kinetic, fuel cell, and other energy storage options for large data centres are gaining traction

The fact that Cloud data centres can require many megawatts of stable, reliable, clean, conditioned power is shaping the strategies of the hyperscale service providers to create green, sustainable infrastructure operations.

In some quarters cloud scalers are being called out for being over reliant on diesel as a back-up energy source. This is premature. The hyperscale cloud operators are said to be at the start of their journeys to complete data centre carbon neutrality. Strategies are continuously evolving. Greater use of renewable primary energy sources and alternative back up energy sources being constantly evaluated.

Yet it is unrealistic to think large facilities can immediately switch over from diesel generators to alternative fuel sources overnight – and hope to keep their data centres operating. This was highlighted in the heat of the Summer when a combination of wild fires and a heatwave threatened grid power cuts in California.

That said, as data centres are estimated to use around 200TWh of electricity annually, approximately 1% of global power generated, the big cloud providers are increasingly turning to alternative energy sources and different back up technologies to power their critical infrastructure.

Cloud providers are changing their energy mix. There is no more use of dirty coal, less reliance on gas, more biomass use and much more renewables.

Each cloud provider is moving in the same direction and each knows there is no single energy source that exists that will work for every data centre. For existing data centres the emphasis is on use of renewables, offsetting and buying carbon credits. For new builds proximity to sustainable power sources such as a wind, tidal and solar are key.

Factors that dictate the power mix of data centres are often geographical. In southern Europe solar energy availability is rising while in Northern Europe proximity to hydro, tidal and wind power is far greater.

For data centre operators infrastructural (grid stability) environmental (air quality targets) and political (incentives, regulatory restrictions) are key considerations.

Grid power reliability will vary depending on the location of the data centre. Generators are rarely fired up (often less than 1% of the lifetime of a data centre) but are most required where the grid is unstable. For some data centres this means a continued reliance on diesel back up.

So, cloud providers are looking at alternatives.

In June 2020 Microsoft announced it had used a 250kW hydrogen fuel cell for power back up of 10 server racks continuously for 48 hours. It was reported that the firm is looking for a 3-megawatt hydrogen fuel cell as the next step in scaling its exploration of using hydrogen as an alternative to diesel for back up. The firm has committed to being carbon negative by 2030 and to stop using diesel for back up by that time.

While the hydrogen fuel cell has the potential to be an alternative back up technology of the near future today there exist clean battery and green non-chemical technologies which can be used with generators that can allow large scale data centre operators to change direction now.

There are many large-scale data centres where kinetic energy storage is already providing reliable interim power back up. And for those who prefer battery back for short term power the increased use of lithium ion batteries is providing cleaner alternatives to VLRA.

Sustainability and environmental protection mean using systems that take care of environment, have a small carbon footprint and at the same time address long term operational and investment cost concerns.

To succeed in today’s world and to create the long-term sustainable businesses of tomorrow is the goal for every cloud provider. To add value to the business will mean reconfiguring data centre power infrastructure to be more efficient, better and more cleanly protected and sustainable. This is no alternative.

Event Alert – What is the future of Data Center Power at Scale?

In a series of live Webinars in November 2020 Piller will explore the future of data centre power and how infrastructure must evolve if Cloud Hyper Scale Companies are to meet their financial and sustainability objectives.

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