How data centres can satisfy AI’s growing power-hungriness sustainably

How data centres can satisfy AI’s growing power-hungriness sustainably

Danel Turk, Data Centres Portfolio Manager at ABB, explores how data centre managers can address the rising power demands of AI while scaling operations with sustainability as a main priority.

Danel Turk, Data Centres Portfolio Manager, ABB

With the rapid proliferation of AI services, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Electricity 2024 report suggests that global data centre electricity use could potentially double by 2026, to a staggering 1000 terawatt-hours — equivalent to the annual electric consumption of Japan. For the data centre industry, expanding operations in the face of this demand is a necessary but financially daunting undertaking.

Before we race to scale up, we must recognise that many data centres are already leaving more than half of their available energy on the table. Over 65% of a data centre’s energy is either consumed by cooling or grid distribution losses.

If we tackle energy efficiency challenges like these first, we could potentially meet most of that doubled power demand.

A data centre’s electrical network used to be much simpler: you connected your site to a utility feed and ran it. Today, there are many more elements at play. You can run on renewable energy. You can install batteries as a buffer for intermittency. You have more opportunities for on-site generation, and AI itself is unlocking new ways to optimise power consumption, performance and maintenance.

Modern data centre electrification relies on three main pillars: smart architecture and modularity; digital equipment; and sustainable growth. Through these, we can achieve the energy efficiency needed to scale up competitively in the age of power-hungry AI, while remaining environmentally responsible.

Modular construction

One aspect of smart architecture is modularity. Modularity in data centre construction supports incremental power and availability demands while streamlining both specification and installation processes. Constructing a data centre in segmented blocks (e.g., 20MW sections for a projected 200MW facility) aligns growth with actual demand, enhances cost efficiency (by minimising unused capacity) and reduces downtime risks.

Prefabricated solutions like skids and eHouses, constructed and tested off-site, expedite installation and cost reductions, resonating well with local utilities and regulatory approvals due to their less invasive growth impact. Moving blocks of electrical equipment outside of the main data hall also allows data centres to cut down on building size – less concrete used means less CO2 emitted.

Medium Voltage and UPS

Medium Voltage (MV) Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSs) can be modularly installed, where parallel wiring of multiple units (e.g., 10 2.5MW blocks to form a 25MW system) boosts capacity without additional complexities. This setup not only speeds up deployment but also reduces the operational burden of having a larger number of low-voltage UPSs. Furthermore, MV systems, typically more energy-efficient than low-voltage alternatives, provide comprehensive power protection for entire data centres, promising long-term savings.

If you calculate the total cost of ownership, factor in the UPS’s lifetime. Even small percentages of efficiency gained in the UPS can have a large impact – because in the data centre, it is running 24/7. Just switching the installed motors to IEC Tier 5 from the lower Tier 3 can increase energy efficiency by up to 30%.

Digital switchgear

Digital equipment reduces the complexities of mechanical configuration and maintenance. Digital switchgear also significantly enhances the efficiency of electrical management, as modern relay technologies can decrease wiring in switchgear by up to 90%, expedite commissioning and allow for standardised panel designs which are versatile across different sites.

Digital tools also facilitate advanced monitoring and integration with building and power continuity management systems. Examples include a centralised protection relay that connects up to 30 switchgear panels to a single system, streamlining network adjustments and software updates.

Using AI

While AI escalates power consumption, it simultaneously holds the key to optimising data centre operations. By employing AI-driven automation, operators can gain comprehensive insights into performance, energy usage and asset health. This real-time data extends the capability to enhance efficiency dramatically – for example, in cooling systems, where discrete components traditionally operate in siloes.

AI also enables enhanced remote assistance, supporting customers with equipment issues and maintenance from a distance. This includes the use of Virtual Reality for technical troubleshooting and training to improve both the identification of problems and the correct spare parts. Much of the adoption of these technologies was accelerated by the forced innovations of the pandemic lockdowns, pushing the industry to adopt remote solutions.


In chasing scalability, sustainability goals are increasingly crucial – given the environmental impacts of traditional energy sources like diesel gensets. Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) facilitate the integration of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, though this is typically solar in most data centres. Stored excess energy can be utilised later, offering grid services like load shifting and frequency response. This integration can also open up new revenue streams through utility give-back schemes during peak demands and fortify negotiations with energy providers.

Invest in SF6-free equipment

With regulations looming around equipment containing sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) due to its heavily radiative properties as a greenhouse gas, transitioning to SF6-free technology is critical. The European Union has strengthened regulations in a significant shift from its stance five years ago, and the timeline for its ongoing phase-out of SF6 in Medium Voltage applications across electrical manufacturers varies by country. These accompany a global trend which is expected to intensify and persist into the future.

The TCO mindset

Adopting a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) mindset is crucial for data centre managers. This approach evaluates both direct and indirect lifetime costs of assets, providing a holistic view of expenditure that emphasises long-term operational savings. By investing in energy-efficient technologies, data centres can realise significant cost reductions and lower emissions over the asset’s lifecycle.

As AI and digital services continue to expand exponentially, proactively pursuing the aforementioned solutions will ensure that power demand is managed and responded to effectively.

Click below to share this article

Browse our latest issue

Intelligent Data Centres

View Magazine Archive