By Billy Durie, Global Sector Head for Data Centres at Aggreko
It is no secret that Europe’s appetite for data is increasing year-on-year. According to Domo’s Data Never Sleeps 6.0, it is estimated that the average person creates 1.7MB of data per second. This rapid rate of digitalisation has in turn placed the onus upon service providers to ensure that this growth is supported, and that demand continues to be met.
However, it is important to note that this has not been without consequence, as the cities housing Europe’s leading data centre markets – Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam, Paris and Dublin (FLAP-D) – are now wrestling with significant grid strain. While it would be unfair to say that this is solely the fault of the data centre sector, it has undoubtedly been a major contributor to this challenge.
In the Republic of Ireland, for instance, data centre electricity consumption has spiked by 144% in five years, with supplier EirGrid introducing stringent legislation around applying for new grid connections as a result. Factoring in the effects of the energy crisis, stability of supply has now reached an all time low for the data centre sector, reinforcing the need to ensure that facilities are able to effectively manage these challenges.
Assessing industry challenges
In an effort to assess how these issues are currently affecting data centre operators, Aggreko surveyed 253 industry professionals across the UK and Republic of Ireland as part of its latest report, The Power Struggle – Data Centres. Those surveyed occupied roles from junior manager up to C-suite executive, with the research taking place in April 2022.
The headline findings illustrate the effect that the combination of grid strain and the energy crisis has had on stability of supply. Over 70% of UK businesses cited power security as either ‘a concern’ or ‘a major concern’, while only 6% said it was not. The former figure rises to 80% where the Republic of Ireland is concerned, illustrating the severity of grid strain in this market.
Moreover, Aggreko’s survey also indicates that 65% and 60% of UK and Irish businesses respectively have experienced power outages in the past 18 months. With this in mind, it is clear that these concerns are not unfounded. Given that industry standards dictate that downtime is expected to be kept to under 28.8 hours per year, these challenges are evidently creating an unsustainable position for the data centre sector.
Comprehensive stress testing
With the consequences of a possible outage in mind, there has never been a more crucial time to ensure that facilities are able to function effectively, even under the effects of grid strain. Given that rising rack densities are driving electricity consumption in data centres ever higher, this consideration is more important than ever. This is achieved through loadbank testing equipment before facilities are brought into operation, which takes place over five key stages:
- Factory acceptance testing: determining whether equipment has been built and operates in accordance with design specifications.
- Site acceptance testing: ensuring equipment meets specification criteria and is inspected for damage before it enters the facility.
- Pre-functional testing: verifying the functionality of the equipment, which includes determining whether each device is properly installed, wired, torqued and Megger tested prior to initial energisation.
- Individual system testing: detecting hotspots or weak components in the equipment, allowing for it to be replaced before the facility is put to work.
- Integrated system testing: ensuring that all equipment responds appropriately to varying loads, staged machinery failures and any potential utility problems.
Through undertaking comprehensive loadbank testing in line with these steps during the commissioning phase, and then annually afterwards, operators can ensure that their facilities stay on top of rising demands while minimising power outage risks.
Exploring alternative approaches
Loadbank testing is the most effective method of assessing the capabilities of a data centre before the facility goes live. However, it is also important to address the long-term causes for the instability of supply in the first place. With this in mind, it may be time for data centre operators to look beyond their traditional grid connection for power procurement.
A possible alternative here could be Energy as a Service (EaaS) or Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), wherein users generate their own energy on site by way of decentralised energy solutions, paying their supplier by kWh. This allows facilities to reduce reliance on their increasingly unstable grid connection without the need to invest in new equipment. The EaaS concept has grown in popularity among data centre operators in recent years, with 51% and 49% of respondents to Aggreko’s survey in the UK and Ireland respectively considering generating their own energy.
Yet drawbacks exist in the form of fixed term pricing, with some operators being subject to one or two-year contracts. Given the volatile nature of the current energy market, it is easy to see how this could be counterintuitive. This is especially concerning given that some operators even issue penalties for excessively high usage.