Sustainable solutions are required to enable data centres to become a good energy partner
How can the industry start to address public concern over data centre power usage in the UK and Ireland? First, the data centre sector must speak openly about its efforts to build a sustainable industry and good power citizen reputation.
In the UK and Ireland, the reputation issue is becoming particularly acute. Because, unlike mainland Europe, each of the main islands has a limited number of grid interconnectors. Today, the UK National Grid operates electricity interconnectors with France, Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Norway. Additional interconnectors are planned with Germany and Denmark. The 720km North Sea Link (NSL) between the UK and Norway is also the world’s longest subsea interconnector, the result of a €1.6 billion joint venture between the countries, which commenced commercial operations on 1st October 2021.
Overall, interconnector capacity increased to 7.4 GW in 2021. The addition of a second link (IFA 2) made France the source of more than half the UK’s imported electricity (53 per cent), with Belgium second highest (24 per cent) followed by the Netherlands (15 per cent). Despite only being in operation for three months, NSL provided five per cent of total electricity imports. Ireland has two interconnectors with Great Britain and there is a commercial plan to connect with France.
By comparison, mainland Europe is significantly more interconnected. To boost its security of electricity supply and to integrate more renewables into energy markets, the EU has set a target to increase the number of cross-border electricity interconnections, encouraging each country to have electricity cables in place allowing at least 15 per cent of the electricity produced within its borders to be transported to neighbouring countries.
In the news
In electricity terms, the UK and Republic of Ireland have much in common as the island of Ireland and the island of Great Britain each operate off a single national power grid.
How relationships between the grid and data centres evolve in both places and how they are perceived by a public concerned about energy security and sustainability has profound implications.
In Ireland and the UK, awareness of the amount of power drawn by data centres has risen. Recent headlines include ‘Eirgrid [Ireland’s grid operator] pulls the plug on the data centres.’
Reports that power used by Ireland’s data centres grew by one third in a single year and now accounts for 14 per cent of the country’s electricity output were not received positively. Ireland has around 70 large data centres reportedly using 900MW, with eight more scheduled for construction.
Recently, Amazon was granted permission to build two new data centres in Dublin, telling council planners that its new 115MW wind farm project in Galway would support the company’s facilities in the country. Recently Microsoft announced that batteries in its Irish data centre campus would provide electrical support to local grids. The batteries will complement solar panels and wind farms near Dublin. The intention is when the grid requires more power than it can provide, the batteries inside the data centre will export stored energy to the grid.
For now, with a de facto moratorium in place, it appears the pause button has been hit for new data centres in the Republic of Ireland until 2028.
Meanwhile, data centres and the UK grid
In the UK, which has around 450 large data centres and nearly 300 commercial colocation sites, the question is, can the data centre sector find a way to speak positively about its energy use?
In June, The Economist reported, “A boom in data-centre construction has affected west London particularly badly. This area is only a small part of a regional grid that covers a swathe of southern England, but it has received 90% of all applications to connect data centres to that grid in the past two years. The amount of electricity these new facilities require is roughly the same as west London’s entire existing capacity.”
We live in an era of surging demand. Demand connections to the UK grid has risen fourfold in the last three years. The UK Government’s energy strategy security document, issued in April 2022 says: “On uncertainty, whilst there are many future decisions yet to be taken, and a need for an agile approach to network infrastructure, we do know that electricity demand is highly likely to double by 2050”.
In July 2022, National Grid announced plans for a major upgrade of the UK’s electrical system with a £54bn investment package to boost the grid infrastructure capacity and build secure connections with new onshore and offshore wind farms and other renewable energy resources. The UK is committed to a mass conversion and adoption of renewable energy to generate 50GW by 2030.
Fintan Slye, executive director of ESO said “It is a key step in providing certainty to offshore wind developers and mitigating potential impacts on the environment and local communities from energy infrastructure.”
Exceeding demand with offshore wind plans
In terms of capacity, Ireland’s good news is that there is a plan for 3.5GW of offshore wind power by 2030, and grid supply to data centres in Ireland is on course to be 2000MW by 2025. The UK target is 70GW of power from offshore wind farms by 2030.
Garry Connolly, founder of industry group Host In Ireland says: “In Ireland the biggest challenge is the grid. To get from the current +/-2,000MW (1.2GW built and 800MW the in the process) is going to require the grid to transition to smart. That is about physics and time. The data centre operators are becoming active on the demand response side and becoming better grid citizens. They are refreshing the older centres, so managing more data for same inputs of electrons.”
Just as the grid itself changes, with more microgrids and large-scale battery energy storage systems becoming more intelligent and more agile with better management, data centres have an opportunity to become part of the solution by becoming bi-directionally grid-interactive.
The major UPS suppliers have developed grid interactive UPS systems. This approach is an excellent example of how data centres can support the grid.
Adopting sustainable solutions such as participation in demand response will enable the data centre sector to become a good energy partner. During this significant grid energy transition to renewables, the industry cannot exacerbate the problem, especially when it is perfectly placed to be part of the solution.
First published in Digital Infra Network