As data demand continues to surge post-pandemic, colocation data centre operators have been tasked with satiating Europe’s digital appetite. However, with grid strain also peaking, some countries are beginning to impose restrictions on data centre connections going forwards. Billy Durie, Global Sector Head for Data Centres at Aggreko, discusses the importance of securing power supply in the face of this industry challenge.
Post-pandemic, the role of data is more critical than ever to our everyday lives. The persistence of remote working is one of the lasting reminders of the lockdown landscape, while demand for streaming services and online gaming continues to surge.
Naturally, this has contributed to increased pressure upon Europe’s data centres, with a CBRE report published in late 2021 indicating that colocation supply in the FLAP (Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam and Paris) market was 17% higher than that of the previous year.
The true cost of downtime
This growth in demand has added fuel to the fire of an already-burgeoning industry challenge, with electrical demand now exceeding supply in a number of key markets. The resulting effect is grid strain, which has called into question the reliability of many facilities’ mains connection.
For many colocation data centre operators, this poses the risk of blackout should the demands of peak time become particularly strenuous. The Uptime Institute’s 11th annual Global Data Centre Survey highlights on-site power as the primary source of downtime in the past year, and asserts that the majority of outages remain preventable.
Despite this fact, the report also indicates that 65% of outages costed $100,000 or more in 2021, while 15% costed more than $1,000,000. As such, the physical consequence of grid strain for data centre operators is apparent.
Warding against grid strain
Moreover, with grid strain becoming so severe in a number of key European markets, some countries are beginning to impose restrictions on data centre connections going forwards in an attempt to alleviate stress on their respective national grids.
In Ireland, for example, national supplier EirGrid has forecasted that data centres could account for as much as 25% of the nation’s electrical demand by 2030. Resultantly, section 4.2.4 of the organisation’s 2019 Connection Offer Policy and Process declares that ‘Firm Capacity’ will only be provided if the facility can demonstrate the ability to make on-site power generation available should it be necessary. Otherwise, the site will only be entitled to ‘Flexible Demand’, which will fluctuate with strain on the grid.
On a local scale, EirGrid stated late last year that it would not be accepting any new data centre applications until 2028, with applications outside of the capital reviewed on a strictly case-by-case basis. Here, Ireland may serve as a warning as to the changes that may follow in the FLAP market, with these cities experiencing similar levels of strain.
The changing face of legislation
While energy shortages are by no means a new phenomenon in this sector, the possibility of a blanket ban on data centre connections presents an entirely new challenge. Exacerbating this further is the introduction of new environmental legislation, which has had a knock-on effect for data centre operators looking to top up their energy supply.
Until recently, one of the most common methods of power remediation was through the use of diesel gensets, which acted as a back-up energy supply should a facility’s mains supply dwindle or threaten to cut out. However, the introduction of the European Commission’s Medium Combustion Plant Directive (MCPD) has significantly limited their use.
The MCPD aims to limit the emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter – all of which are by-products of diesel combustion. This is a move that has been echoed in the UK with the introduction of low and ultra-low emission zones in a number of major cities. This is a particular concern for colocation facilities, which are often based in urban areas and are already facing the brunt of grid strain.
An heir to diesel
It would appear as though the combination of these factors has created somewhat of a perfect storm for colocation data centre operators, who have now been stripped of a primary method of remedial power generation when it is needed most. For this reason, it is necessary that the scope is expanded in the search for a solution.
Here, there are a number of alternative technologies that may help to bridge the energy gap. First and foremost, operators that would like to continue using gensets should consider introducing hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) as a drop-in fuel, allowing for an immediate reduction in local emissions. For a site with temporary load requirements of 1MW for a generator and 1MW for the UPS system, this simple switch can deliver a 90% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, while also cutting NOx and PM by up to 25%.
For those looking for a more permanent heir to traditional diesel systems, Stage V generators, such as those used by Aggreko, may prove a sensible option. These high-performance gensets are equipped with diesel particulate filters, catalytic reduction systems and diesel oxidation systems to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Crucially, these features make these gensets fully compliant with the MCPD and fit-for-use in low and ultra-low emissions zones.
In order to help curb inefficient generator usage, Stage V systems can be incorporated as part of a load on demand package, wherein a larger generator is replaced by multiple smaller ones that scale up or down in accordance with demand. Research from Aggreko has found that hired solutions are often ran on as low as 30% capacity – a far cry from the recommended level of 80%, so this consideration is key.
This approach is particularly crucial to the data centre construction phase, with load demand experiencing high levels of fluctuation. Returning to the aforementioned example of UPS power requirements of a 1MW generator and 1MW UPS system, switching to two 600KVa Stage V generators instead results in a 25% reduction in CO2 and overall fuel consumption, as well as an 85% reduction in local emissions.
Battery storage systems
Besides HVO and Stage V, the final technology that holds great potential for power remediation in the data centre sphere is battery storage systems. Here, the concept of ‘energy shifting’ allows energy to be stored from solar or thermal sources, to be redeployed when grid supply dwindles.
This is done by way of a spinning reserve system, with battery storage automatically topping up supply in a matter of seconds to help avoid a costly blackout. This approach also provides scope for the creation of a genset-battery hybrid system, equipping the operator with maximum flexibility to ward against power shortages.
While the tightening of both power procurement and environmental legislation initially appears to be a challenge, it is clear that there are effective methods of overcoming grid strain without violating sustainability commitments. To ensure that these tools are accessible, Aggreko has recently launched its Greener Upgrades initiative to support the data centre industry in its move towards net zero. Here, by offering solutions that are both environmentally friendly and pragmatic, the company aims to help contractors make impactful choices to reduce emissions while keeping operating costs to a minimum.
Incorporating decentralised energy solutions on-site is not only critical to alleviating current grid strain, but to future-proof against any legislative shifts that may limit new connections, such as EirGrid’s Connection Offer Policy and Process. Here, it will be necessary for data centre operators to broaden their horizons in the search for a comprehensive solution, as only through an all-encompassing approach can the effects of grid strain be alleviated.