Combatting grid strain with decentralised energy solutions

Combatting grid strain with decentralised energy solutions

With demand for data in Europe on the rise, data centre operators are under increased pressure to ensure that the continent’s digital appetite continues to be met. However, with these facilities now consuming more energy than ever before, many nations are beginning to place restrictions on data centre connections in order to ward against grid strain. Billy Durie, Global Sector Head for Data Centres at Aggreko, discusses the importance of incorporating decentralised energy solutions on site in order to combat this industry challenge.

Demand for data in Europe is currently surging, with a CBRE report published in late 2021 indicating that colocation supply in the FLAP (Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam and Paris) market was 17% higher than that of the previous year. While this growth cannot be attributed to a single factor, it would be fair to say that the retention of remote working post-pandemic has undoubtably fuelled this shift.

The price of grid strain

The physical consequence here is grid strain, with electrical demand at risk of outstripping supply in a number of key markets. Consequently, data centre operators may find that their mains connection is not as reliable as it previously was and that grid supply is increasingly unable to meet the demands of their facilities.

In a worst-case scenario, this poses the risk of blackout, which – as any operator can attest – can prove extremely damaging, even in minor instances. With data centres expected to aim for 99.999% uptime and the risk of power cuts only continuing to grow as the grid becomes more strained, operators may soon find themselves in an untenable position.

A warning from Ireland

Moreover, with grid strain as much of a threat to the wider economy as it is to data centres, many nations are beginning to take action against the sector in order to protect supply. Here, the Irish market may serve as a glimpse into the legislative changes that may follow in the FLAP market should the situation continue to deteriorate.

For example, national energy supplier, EirGrid, has forecasted that data centres could account for as much as 25% of the nation’s electrical demand by 2030. In order to try and cull this figure, section 4.2.4 of the organisation’s 2019 Connection Offer Process and Policy stipulates that EirGrid will only provide ‘Firm Capacity’ if the data centre will make available dispatchable on-site generation. Otherwise, the supply will be ‘Flexible Demand’ meaning that supply will be reduced when the grid is constrained.

The most recent development on this policy came in late 2021, with EirGrid stating that it would no longer be accepting new data centre applications in Dublin until 2028 and that only current applications would be processed until this date. In practice, this has effectively ensured a moratorium on data centre construction in the capital for the remainder of the decade. Outside of Dublin, applications will be reviewed on a strictly case-by-case basis.

Should the FLAP markets continue along its current trajectory, legislative changes may well begin to mirror Ireland’s. Amsterdam, for example, has already imposed a temporary moratorium on data centre construction from 2019, suggesting that it is a question of when, and not if, this comes to Frankfurt, London and Paris.

Bridging the energy gap

When the consequences of an unstable grid connection and possible legislative shifts are set out, it is clear that data centre operators simply cannot rely on a grid connection alone to power their facility. For this reason, it may be necessary to incorporate decentralised solutions on site, both to top up supply during peak time and bridge the energy gap in the event of an outage.

For example, introducing gensets in spinning reserve is one of the most effective safety nets a site can have. Here, a number of backup generators will be kept online but unloaded, ready to top-up supply in the event that the grid connection should wane.

Crucially, this approach is frequency responsive, meaning that contingency solutions will engage in as little as 10 seconds should supply dip, allowing a blackout to be avoided. Moreover, this also demonstrates compliance with EirGrid’s Connection Offer Process and Policy, namely the ability to make available dispatchable on-site generation, meaning the site should be entitled access to ‘Firm Capacity’.

There may also be scope for battery storage to help address peaking demand. By embracing the concept of energy shifting, power can be stored from the grid during periods of low demand, such as in the night, to then be redeployed during peak time when the grid is strained. This is key to minimising pressure on the mains connection during operational hours.

There are many approaches that data centre operators can take to become less reliant on their grid connection. However, for maximum peace-of-mind, it is crucial to opt for the approach that best suits the unique needs of the facility. For this reason, operators should consider partnering with a specialist, such as Aggreko, for their decentralised energy needs.

Aggreko’s modular approach to design allows load demand to be flexed, with megawatts added or subtracted as needed to ensure only the necessary energy is used. Moreover, this not only equips facilities with the optimum solutions to secure their supply, but the expertise of an entire network of seasoned professionals, which will prove a key asset in navigating the changing face of legislation amid growing grid strain.

Closing thoughts

In the face of Europe’s burgeoning data demand, the reliability of traditional grid connections will only continue to wane. Moreover, with legislation towards data centres becoming increasingly hostile in this market, operators must look towards alternative means to power their facilities.

Here, incorporating contingency solutions will prove more vital than ever going forwards, both to secure current supply and future-proof against developments in this sphere. Through the aid of a partner such as Aggreko, data centre owners and operators can be equipped with the flexibility they need to weather the storm and ensure sustainable growth for the sector.

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