Biogas facility at data centre highlights the opportunities offered by sector coupling

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As our lives, both work and leisure, become more digital and the global computing capacity continues to grow apace there is naturally an increased focus on energy consumption from data centres. However, that growing demand for energy need not be a barrier to the sustainable energy transition, in fact data centres may present an opportunity to accelerate the transition.

A 2019 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) showed that data centres sit at the nexus of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and burgeoning data economy enabled by digitalisation. By integrating the latest technologies and leveraging the increasingly attractive economics of renewables and the increased efficiencies made possible by artificial intelligence, data centres are paving a path that other power-hungry industries could follow.

Sector coupling as the way ahead

Part of this opportunity comes from sector coupling, where disparate sectors – in this case data centres, power generators and system operators – work together to deliver solutions that deliver new sustainable business models. One such example comes from Ireland where recently Echelon Data Centres, the Irish-owned data centre owner and operator, and Biocore Environmental, an Irish company generating renewable power from biosolids, agreed to colocate a biogas production facility on the Echelon DUB20 data centre site in Arklow, Co Wicklow, Ireland.

Biocore specialises in producing methane gas through the anaerobic digestion process, gas which can be used to power combined heat and power (CHP) generators producing electricity, or which can be processed further and supplied directly to the national gas network. Echelon, which has six sites in Ireland and the UK with up to 500 MW of capacity, is committed to sustainable operations, one element of which is exploring ways in which its facilities can be powered cleanly and sustainably.

Niall Molloy, CEO of Echelon Data Centres, believes that as demand for data processing, management and storage facilities continues to increase, driven by society’s increasing reliance on tech and its application in everyday life, data centre operators must focus on, and facilitate, the provision of clean and sustainable power to their facilities.

“The inconvenient truth is that data centres are huge consumers of power, but equally inconvenient is the fact that without them, we would not be enjoying – relying on, the benefits of 5G, e-commerce, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and virtual reality,” he said. “Given, therefore, that data centres are here to stay, it’s up to us, the facilities’ owners and operators, to make provision to power them sustainably, cleanly and with least impact on the grid.

“Our agreement with Biocore, which would see a renewable biogas facility colocated with a 100 MW data centre on our DUB20 site is a landmark initiative which could assist in providing a renewable back-up power solution for the facility, while also making productive use of organic material and returning value in terms of fertiliser stock for Irish agriculture.”

This agreement follows on from Echelon’s recent agreement with SSE Renewables to co-locate a substation on its DUB20 site which will facilitate the development of Ireland’s largest offshore windfarm, supplying some 520 MW of renewable power through the substation to the national grid. The substation will also supply power to the data centre.

“On our DUB10 (Clondalkin) site, we have planning permission for a 100 MVA gas-fired energy centre, which will help smooth the flow in the grid, enabling the transition to 100 per cent renewable energy, while providing back-up power for the facility thereby doing away with the need for diesel generators.”

Unexploited potential of biogas

Declan Murray, Managing Director of Biocore Environmental welcomed the agreement with Echelon, highlighting the mostly untapped potential in biogas production, both as a completely sustainable and eco-friendly method of producing fuel and as a way of solving problems associated with the recovery of biodegradable material.

“Biogas production is a virtuous circle – we take organic materials that can, themselves, become environmental pollutants, and transform them into gas either for supply to the gas network, or for use in generating power. The residue from the production process is dried and re-supplied to the farms from which much of our organic feedstock can be sourced. This residue makes an excellent fertiliser – and means that none of the organic material goes to waste.

“Our relationship with Echelon will be a symbiotic one, we can use the heat that is generated by the data centre to maintain our biogas production process, and the biogas produced can assist the data centre in terms of producing power for storage in back-up battery arrays.

“One of the by-products of the gas cleaning process, before it is introduced to the gas network for supply to homes and businesses, is carbon dioxide. This is an effective fertiliser for plant products cultivated under cover and, of course, the Echelon DUB20 site has the space to host such enterprises in the future.”

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