Educating Data Centers about Microgrid Benefits: More than Backup Generation

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This special report series focuses on data center microgrids for the colocation and big data industry. In the second entry from the series, we highlight why microgrid benefits go well beyond backup generation.

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As a self-sufficient energy system, microgrids are capable of serving discrete geographic footprints. These locations and geographies include college campuses, hospital complexes, business centers or entire neighborhoods.

If you look at the US power grid, you will see that it’s pretty big and sometimes complicated.

Our primary grids bring electricity—along with all of its comforts and conveniences— to everyone connected to it. It is great until it breaks. Unfortunately, it breaks too often. The grid is aging, exposed, and overcrowded, causing it to be especially volatile. Because it is all connected, a single down wire will disable and bring down another, creating a domino effect that results in a massive outage. This power outage can then spread for miles, sometimes over several states.

When these all-too-common grid failures occur, microgrids have the potential to keep the lights on while offering additional vital benefits. With that in mind, it is essential to look at what makes a microgrid so different.

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Microgrids are smart, more capable than a simple generator

Rob Thornton, president and CEO of the 105-year-old International District Energy Association, often says that microgrids are “more than diesel generators with an extension cord.” In other words, a microgrid is not just a backup generation mechanism but should be a robust, 24/7/365 asset. Also, an advanced microgrid may provide grid and energy management services.

Consider this list of microgrid capabilities:

  • Produce on-site generation and, in some cases, thermal energy
  • Sell capacity, energy, and ancillary services to the grid and participate in demand response—activities that create a potential revenue stream for the asset owner
  • Optimize energy resources to priorities set by the host
  • Manage load to reduce energy waste and achieve superior efficiency

A fundamental feature of a microgrid is its ability to island — meaning it can disconnect from the central grid and operate independently and then reconnect and work in parallel with the grid.

A microgrid controller gives the microgrid its islanding capability. Also known as the central brain of the system, the controller can manage the generators, batteries, and nearby building energy systems with a high degree of sophistication.

There are several real-world use cases of microgrids impacting the way critical power services are being delivered.

  • Universities and colleges: College campuses are significant users of microgrids. The natural composition of a college campus is a perfect set up for microgrids because campuses already have many buildings close together.
  • Cities: Cities are increasingly installing microgrids for “critical facilities,” such as hospitals, emergency shelters, police stations, and grocery stores—places that need electricity in a crisis. These are called community microgrids.
  • Businesses: Many organizations have realized the high cost of power outages and taken proactive action. For example, H-E-B, a Texas-based grocery chain with more than 370 stores in the U.S. and Mexico and $23 billion in annual sales, invested in a microgrid project to protect them from costly outages.
  • Healthcare: Healthcare facilities require constant power to perform life-saving tasks and keep critical services running. Although hospitals are required to have a form of emergency generation, many hospitals are looking to microgrids to back up their entire facility rather than just certain critical areas needed for compliance.
  • Military: Not surprisingly, the military was an early adopter of microgrids on U.S. bases to ensure mission resiliency. They also use remote microgrids in places like Afghanistan.
The additional benefits of adopting microgrid architecture

Again, these microgrid users are not only trying to maintain uptime, but also make an impact on cost while creating greener and cleaner options. Drivers for microgrid adoption include:

Designing the highest possible levels of resiliency
In an era of critical workloads, ensuring maximum possible uptime is vital. According to survey results released by the Uptime Institute, nearly one-third of all data centers had an outage during the study period. The study further noted that there was a year-over-year increase in disruptions occurring within the data center. However, the increase was not due to a computer virus or malware attack.

Designed to work in tandem with the grid, or in an island fashion, microgrids ensure you don’t incur milliondollar outage costs while keeping your critical infrastructure running efficiently.

Instead, the top cause of downtime was, in fact, power outages. And these outages are costly. Around one-third of all reported outages cost more than $250,000, with many exceeding $1 million.

To resolve these outage issues, microgrids are specifically deployed to ensure the highest possible levels of resiliency.

microgrid benefits

Modern and sophisticated microgrid solutions produce data points that are then analyzed by AI and machine learning engines. (Photo: bchinasong/Shutterstock.com)

Reducing energy costs
Through the efficient management of energy supply, microgrids not only reduce costs, but they also can generate revenue. Think of areas where electricity costs are high, for example, the Northeast and California come to mind. In those locations, microgrids can provide energy at a lower price than the grid. By providing ancillary services to the central grid, microgrids can also earn revenue. Ancillary services provide support functions for the grid, such as frequency control and spinning reserve.

Shifting to green operations
In today’s world, going green is essential. Microgrids can actively leverage a wide array of green power technologies, including solar, wind, fuel cells, renewable natural gas, combined heat and power (CHP) plants, and energy storage technologies. Even natural gas generators have far lower emissions than traditional diesel backup generators. Microgrids also can intelligently integrate renewable energy into the energy mix.

Here’s the other key point—all of this is driven by data. Modern and sophisticated microgrid solutions produce data points that are then analyzed by AI and machine learning engines. This data can be used to provide information about the abnormal behaviors of system components, maintenance needs, unexpected power fluctuations, or even security metrics around access.

(Graph source: Guidehouse Insights)

Most of all, this information allows your microgrid to become predictive and prescriptive. Furthermore, leaders in the space do not just operate one or two microgrid solutions. Instead, they have multiple sites that all aggregate management data.

Microgrid innovators can then use this information to improve efficiencies at your site. All of this enhances reliability, helps you avoid product loss, reduces noncompliance, and ensures that you have constant capacity when it comes to power.

Catch up on the first entry in the report series that explores the evolving relationship between data centers and the environment. 

And also stay tuned. In the coming weeks this Microgrid Special Report series will explore the following topics:

  • How Microgrids Introduce New Data Center Economics
  • What’s New? The Microgrid is a Lot More Efficient — Effortless to Run
  • Microgrid Partners Aim to Change Power Delivery, Efficiency and Economics

Get the full report, “How Microgrids are Changing the Paradigm on Data Center Power Delivery, Uptime, and Efficiency,” courtesy of Enchanted Rock, to further explore the growing symbiotic relationship between microgrids and data centers. Or, Join us for “Microgrid Myths: Busted,” a free webinar on data center microgrids.

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