Optimising sustainable opportunities to power data centres
The endpoint of the energy sector transition is fully sustainable zero-carbon electrification.
However, to reach anything like this within a couple of decades points to disruption at a scale requiring the rapid adoption of new technologies and fuel sources.
Cause for optimism can be found in the $4tn of capital investment already made in sustainable technologies targeting the decarbonisation of entire industries. And there is yet more cause for optimism in the commitments of the power industry to deliver zero-carbon generation and distribution.
But where are the short- and medium-term sustainable power opportunities for data centres?
For some context in terms of power generation at the macro scale Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, recently issued his annual letter to shareholders. In it he stated: “The transition to net zero is already uneven with different parts of the global economy moving at different speeds. It will not happen overnight. We need to pass through shades of brown to shades of green. For example, to ensure continuity of affordable energy supplies during the transition, traditional fossil fuels like natural gas will play an important role both for power generation and heating in certain regions, as well as for the production of hydrogen.”
In terms of sustainable power distribution, the disruptive idea of a global green grid is attractive. But the history of grid building is national and, in large countries, regional. So given the realities of the starting point, it would mean a new global interconnector infrastructure strategy involving nation states, individual states within countries, supra national organisations such as the EU and the global super powers. This is a seriously long-term undertaking and it is not without risks.
Thinking in the medium-term, an examination of the possibilities for building interconnected grids in Europe is seen as having great potential. At the recent Data Centres Ireland conference, a panel discussion was told: “The concept of a super grid in Europe that stretches from Scotland all the way down to Africa along effectively what is the West Coast of Europe and the concept of super grids where energy could move in a much better and easier way is highly attractive.”
However, a look at existing cross border interconnectors shows that between Ireland, the Caspian Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean can be counted as no more than a few dozen. [See https://www.entsoe.eu/data/map/] A major economy such as the UK has 3 interconnectors with Europe, one planned with Norway and two with Ireland.
To drill down a little further. A market such as Ireland, which as an island operates a single grid and which must generate almost 100% of its own electricity, has heavily invested in renewables. But now the challenge is to accelerate its development of a distributed grid infrastructure. It must build suitable distribution and storage infrastructure to take full advantage of its on-shore (5GW) and off shore wind generation (10GW planned). Ireland’s grid has System Non Synchronous Penetration (SNSP) which is the highest in the world. Data Centres Ireland was told that the journey that the Irish grid has been on is one that all the grids in Europe will take in the future.
Ireland’s planned distributed energy model requires data centres to be a contributor to the ‘flexgen’ objective by supporting the grid with their embedded on-site generation assets.
In order for this to be acceptable it must be sustainable. It will be a journey of incremental steps involving phasing out diesel, switching to biofuels, the use of fossil fuel produced gas and the switch to clean natural gas and ultimately the journey to green hydrogen from excess renewable capacity for primary power and back up energy storage.
How quickly data centres respond and change is a choice that will dictate whether they contribute to positive change while taking advantage of the opportunities.
Blackrock’s Fink ends his letter with: “Few things will impact capital allocation decisions – and thereby the long-term value of your company – more than how effectively you navigate the global energy transition in the years ahead.”
Changes that involve the restructuring of entire power markets at the macro level are bound to be slow. While governments and power companies work on agreements it falls to individual players in energy-intensive sectors such as the data centre industry to find practicable solutions. For data centre operators sustainability interest is self-interest. The journey starts by thinking globally while acting locally.
Watch the video discussing these points at Data Centre Ireland here: