A slow path to renewables for data centres

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Sustainability and carbon footprint goals embedded into Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs are the biggest drivers for data centres utilising renewable energy. “Currently, there is a limited cost saving benefit but, in the future, this could become an additional driver as systems become more efficient,” Ronald van Veen, technical solutions architect for Vertiv in EMEA, says. “New regulations and measures to reduce climate change will also have a key role in accelerating the use of renewable energy, as data centres adapt to remain compliant.”

According to van Veen the data centre industry is moving into a new wave of renewable energy, moving from pioneering pilot projects to a level of standardisation. “This will help make strong use cases for smaller businesses that can leverage the experience of the early adopters. The hold back in adoption of renewables lies in the infrastructure and in the unpredictable nature of renewable energy itself, especially wind and solar.

“A grid using a higher proportion of renewable energy sources will suffer from larger supply fluctuations which require specific grid support systems to ensure that the power supply is reliable to match the constant load profile that data centres require. Grid support systems involve lithium-ion batteries and/or hydrogen fuel cells, along with specific software and services to ensure seamless grid management and uninterruptible power supply. 

“Data centre infrastructure is slowly adapting to renewable energy, and Vertiv UPS systems increasingly enable grid support applications. As standardization increases, we will see more adoption of renewables and data centres may take a more active role in optimizing the grid, becoming a sort of dynamic battery within the system but also for the benefit of other industries and households.”

Most of the attention is focussed on wind and solar power but there are other options such as hydropower or geothermal energy. “Hydropower is definitely a viable option because it is even more reliable and constant than wind or solar power,” van Veen adds. “The choice of renewable depends on geography, with wind and hydro more applicable in Nordic countries and solar in Southern European countries. A mix of different power sources is often the best option to mitigate the fluctuations that each source has.”

One well used tactic amongst data hungry companies is power purchase agreements (PPA). The idea behind using a PPA is simple: companies cannot buy clean energy from our utilities because of regulatory restrictions on retail contracts, and they cannot produce nearly enough of it behind the meter at data center facilities because of physical and geographical restrictions. But it is possible to buy it at the wholesale level directly from developers on the same grids where they operate data centres.

“On-site renewables such as solar panels on rooftops usually generate just a small part of the total energy required,” van Veen adds continues. “This means the preferred approach for data centre operators is to utilise PPAs that can maximise power availability without having to worry about energy generation which is not part of their business. In the future, some of the bigger players may want to consider on-site renewables more but for now it is not a huge priority.” 

Vertiv has made the strategic choice to use colocation and cloud services from some of their valuable customers. The energy sources are therefore determined by the colo/cloud providers and the utility companies.




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