Batteries included for sustainable data centres that support the power grid

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Like most forward-thinking global businesses, Google has set itself some challenging environmental targets. When it comes to energy, its target is that by 2030 all its electricity will be carbon free. One of the biggest challenges for a carbon free future comes from the back-up power required to ensure continuous operation at its data centres. This burden has typically been borne by diesel gen sets, but that solution does not tally with the sector’s green ambitions.

Battery back up power has long been mooted as an alternative. The dilemma here is that lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are still the energy storage platform of choice, and they are still relatively expensive. At its Belgium data centre, Google have come up with a solution to this cost quandary and it is a solution that is gaining traction throughout much of the compute and energy utility sector, collaboration.  

Ending the reign of diesel for back-up power

“On the rare occasions when a Google data centre is affected by a power outage, we must be ready to ramp up millions of watts of back-up electricity in seconds,” Joe Kava, VP, global data centres, at Google says. “This is a daunting challenge, which our industry has typically met using diesel generators. But now we are aiming to demonstrate that a better, cleaner solution has advanced far enough to keep the internet up and running.

“But even more important is what will happen when we do not need emergency power. Whereas diesel generators sit idle most of the year, batteries are multi-talented team players: when we are not using them, they will be available as an asset that strengthens the broader electric grid.”

Worldwide it is estimated there are over 20 GW of back-up diesel generators in service across the data centre industry, representing a massive opportunity to deploy cleaner solutions.

“Our project in Belgium is a first step that we hope will lay the groundwork for a big vision: a world in which back-up systems at data centres go from climate change problems to critical components in carbon-free energy systems,” Kava adds. 

How data centres can anchor carbon free electric grids

Wind and solar power are currently booming around the world, but sunny days and breezy hours do not always align with a community’s energy demand. Large-scale batteries at data centres can address this problem by banking renewable power when it is abundant and discharging it when it is needed. Batteries can also help balance other kinds of variability on power grids, allowing for more cost-effective and efficient operations.

“Working in partnership with ELIA, the local transmission system operator in Belgium, we will strive to make our project a model for how data centres can become anchors for carbon free electric grids,” Kava continues. “In fact, one reason we chose Belgium as the site for our project is because the local team already has a track record of implementing novel energy ideas. It was the first facility in our global fleet to run entirely without mechanical chillers—one of many reasons that the European Commission recognised it as a top performer for energy efficiency. It is also the place where we have integrated our largest on-site renewable energy installation—more than 10,000 solar panels strong.”

Another advocate of Li-ion battery storage and its integration with the power grid is He Bo, president of Huawei Data Center Energy Product Line. He cites four key reasons why this is a trend that will become increasingly important as we move towards a carbon free sustainable future. His first reason is that Li-ion batteries greatly reduces the footprint. “As we know, a data centre occupies a large area,” he says. “In cities where land is highly priced, such as London, Singapore, and Hong Kong, storage batteries that occupy large areas affect the economic benefits. Therefore, from the perspective of return on investment (ROI), the reduction of the footprint is necessary.

“Second, storage batteries can be charged and discharged many times. This feature can produce economic benefits through actions such as peak load shaving with peak-valley electricity prices.

“Third, the coordinated power supply mode works. If the power grid has insufficient capability when the load is at peak hours, the lithium battery can perform coordinated power supply, which reduces the initial mains investment.

“Last but not least, lithium batteries have a longer lifespan. Throughout the lifecycle, lithium batteries cost less than storage batteries because of less replacement. In the future, the price of lithium batteries will keep decreasing while the cost of lead-acid batteries is increasing. Therefore, we are extremely optimistic about the application of lithium batteries.”

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