Addressing the carbon footprint of data centre backup power 

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Backup power

With scrutiny of data centre energy consumption on the rise, operators are on the lookout for ways to increase the efficiency of data infrastructure at the same time as addressing concerns over its carbon footprint.  

An ever-increasing reliance on data transmission and storage, crucial for modern economies and the backbone of the energy transition, means that it is inevitable that the digital sector will continue to grow. Projections estimate that the data centre services market could more than double from $48.9 billion in 2020, to $105.6 billion by 2026. Considering the vast amounts of electricity consumed by the digital infrastructure industry, data centres are well placed to become part of the solution, rather than present an increasing problem during this transitory period. 

Brownfield data centre retrofits are ripe for upgrades as the uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are aging, and upgrading to modern, efficient systems could help increase efficiency by as much as 30 per cent. This presents an opportunity to apply project finance structures to enable UPS-as-a-service, providing a zero CapEx, discounted OpEx solution for the operator.  

Another opportunity is in deploying a solution for diesel-free backup generators for data centres. One of the major drivers for success in the data centre industry is reliability – the ability of the facility to remain accessible to its customers at all points during any given day. Power outages would, obviously, have a severe impact on data centre reliability, so backup power generators are deployed in order to add a layer of redundancy should an energy failure occur, meaning the facility stays online while the issue with the main power supply is resolved. 

However, the vast majority of backup generators use diesel as a fuel source, leading many operators to consider alternatives in order to decrease the carbon footprint of their facility. 

“The industry is led by the hyperscalers, and they are now committing to becoming diesel-free by 2030,” says William Bubenicek, a sustainable infrastructure entrepreneur working as a developer-in-residence for Generate Capital. “This commitment gets pushed down onto the value chain, as part of the hyperscalers scope 3 initiatives and this means the colocation folks must follow suit.   

“The challenge in this target is that every data centre today already has diesel generators installed. Ideally, diesel generators can be replaced with more sustainable options, but due to the large existing footprint of diesel generators, the most likely short-term solution to achieve this is to use sustainably sourced biofuels like HVO (hydro-treated vegetable oil), which can be a like-for-like replacement for the diesel, meaning you do not have to replace existing infrastructure. Long term, there is a lot of promise coming from sustainable solutions, including battery storage and hydrogen.  

“By going diesel-free, it also means that there are virtually no restrictions on how often a facility can run their generators, meaning the backup system can actually become a bi-directional grid interface as well, where valuable services can be provided to the grid at the same time as being a diesel-free onsite backup solution.” 

Could nuclear be the answer? 

Of course, while incremental steps are worth taking to reduce emissions over time, there are solutions that hold the potential to reduce emissions in their entirety. Harry Keeling, vice president of strategy and business development at Roll Royce SMR, says that nuclear power could be a viable answer to both concerns over energy supply reliability, and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from backup power. 

“The model that we are proposing to data centre companies utilises small modular reactors (SMRs), roughly 470 megawatts in size, that will be situated in the energy parks that provide electricity directly to industries. Crucially for those industries, because the energy is not being channelled through the National Grid before they use it, the cost of the electricity is reduced drastically.” 

Keeling explains that a more consistent power source, such as a nuclear plant, could greatly minimise the need for a data centre to have a backup generator, especially in cases where two SMR power plants run side-by-side and in tandem with one another. But, while an SMR is not being utilised as backup, there is also the potential to use it to generate hydrogen for the wider market or produce electricity for the grid. In this way, it is possible for an operator to save the costs associated with what would otherwise be unnecessary hardware. 

“There are going to be scenarios where a site can only deploy a single SMR where it might be more understandable to have a backup generator, but often you can run these on carbon-free fuels too. For example, hydrogen can be made using an electrolyser powered by electricity from the SMR, and then it can be stored and used on site. They can also produce e-fuels, where carbon is pulled from the air and combined with hydrogen to create a carbon-neutral fuel. 

“As with all these things, there is obviously a compromise on land usage and logistics for transportation, which is why we believe that the best solution is an energy hub where everything is already onsite.” 

Companies like Microsoft have already mapped their path to carbon neutrality, by as early as 2030, with many others following suit. Despite how ambitious that target sounds, Keeling remains positive that it can be achieved. “So many things are going to have to change. There will be people like us producing ways of generating power that is carbon-free, and then storing it. And then you have got to have the policies in place to facilitate the change, and the users pushing from their direction too. But, if the stars align, we will get there, 100 per cent. 

“It is amazing how quickly things have already changed. Ten years ago, half of the UK’s energy came from coal. But the energy landscape now is so drastically different, and is set to get greener and cleaner as time goes on. I am hoping things continue to look bright for the future.” 

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