Using Local Generation to Improve Data Center Resilience and Sustainability

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Schneider Electric’s Andy Haun explores how to use local generation to improve efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability — specifically in the colocation industry and data centers. 

local generation

Andy Haun, senior vice president and chief technology officer, microgrids, Schneider Electric

Modern business runs on data. Data centers around the world must maintain the highest degree of uptime possible to ensure uninterrupted data services for their clients. According to the Uptime Institute, one-third of data centers experienced an outage in 2018. Further, power failures accounted for nearly 40% of the biggest, global public service outages.

When data center outages occur, business operations are put at risk, jeopardizing profits and for some organizations, such as hospitals, critical life services. That is why data centers secure their power as part of the service life agreements (SLAs) with their customers. Typically, the agreement includes a reliability goal – the degree of uptime expected from the primary source of energy. For example, a utility may have a reliability requirement of 99.9%.

But, what happens when the utility experiences an outage? How does the data center address that gap beyond the 99.9 when services are not available? That is resilience – the ability to provide backup generation to ensure always on services.

A service life agreement includes specific standards and strategies regarding a tiered level of resiliency the data center will include in the event of an outage, such as backup generation, uninterrupted power supply (UPS), redundancy, etc.

Local generation reduces redundancy and costs

Data centers have traditionally relied on UPS and diesel generators to maintain uptime, but the industry is now looking at alternative approaches to meet resiliency needs, while reducing redundancy and enhancing sustainability as fuel source becomes a larger priority.

One such strategy is to use microgrids having local generation resources, to produce the power needed to run the data center, thereby reducing some redundancy in the system. In doing so, data centers can minimize the cost of redundancies and increase uptime. This allows data centers to reduce operating costs by leveraging the assets they already have.

Some data center solution providers are putting in place fuel cells and adding solar photovoltaic (PV) as alternatives to reduce the cost of their energy. We see this most often on Caribbean islands where there energy generation is very costly, and also in cases where a diesel generator is hard to permit, so a mix of alternative solutions like extended run batteries and/or local generation can bring value and performance for the data center without deviating from local sustainability requirements.

Microgrids meet uptime goals at reduced economic and environmental costs

Advanced microgrid solutions not only support local onsite generation, they also supplement many data centers’ use of virtual power purchase agreements (VPPAs). VPPAs allow data centers to buy renewable credits or have renewable generation that is not onsite but is instead sourced through remote locations where there is large renewable generation like a wind farm. The data centers buy into those agreements, which state the energy off-taken from that remote system is equivalent to what is off-taken by the local data center. The idea is that the local generation assets, which could be less green, i.e. coal, are offset by renewable, remote generation.

Data centers require a level of power resiliency that localized, sustainable power generation such as a microgrid can provide.

These specialized agreements are a typical way data centers meet their sustainability needs. However, the limitation is the data center cannot point to the renewable asset as an energy source, meaning they may be taking energy from a less environmentally friendly source which is not fully sustainable.

Using the microgrid locally with onsite renewable generation allows microgrid operators to point to their generation assets as being locally generating. They get the benefit of sustainability, but also the advantage of more control over the reliability of local generation that can improve the resiliency of their site.

In turn, data centers gain a strategic advantage for better resilience for their clients and can demonstrate use of renewable and environmentally friendly generation assets locally onsite. This is becoming more and more attractive to sustainability-minded consumers who are demanding fast data with low environmental impact.

Data centers typically make up two to 3%  of total demand on the electrical grid. By using microgrid for local generation, these data centers can reduce demand on the already stressed grid.

Some of the world’s largest data centers, including Facebook and Salesforce, have already turned to renewable energy sources to fuel their data centers. By decreasing their energy use and incorporating more on-site renewable energy resources to compliment VPPs, data centers can reduce their impact on the environment.

Reducing data centers’ hunger for power

Data centers require a level of power resiliency that localized, sustainable power generation such as a microgrid can provide. By taking advantage of redundant assets and using them as local generation assets, data centers can demonstrate resilience to meet SLAs, reduce their reliance on grid generation, and lead the way to a more sustainable future.

To learn more about the ways data centers and advanced microgrids work together, download Schneider Electric’s joint report with Navigant Research: Data Centers and Advanced Microgrids: Meeting Resiliency, Efficiency, and Sustainability Goals Through Smart and Cleaner Power Infrastructure.

Andy Haun is senior vice president and chief technology officer, microgrids, at Schneider Electric

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