The benefits of microgrids in building a new generation of sustainable and resilient data centres

By Marc Garner, VP, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric UK&I

There are many reasons why Ireland has become a popular location for data centres in recent years. In the first instance, its geographical location makes it an attractive destination for submarine communications cables—a fact that has been evident since the first ever transatlantic telegraph messages were sent between Newfoundland and Valentia Island, Kerry in 1858. Today’s underwater cables, now comprised of optical fibre, also provide copious direct links between the island and Great Britain, the European continent, and North America.

Added to this is the long-term industrial policy of encouraging high-technology industry clusters around pharmaceuticals, software, web development, and other digital-centric industries, both through inward investment and indigenous growth. This strategy inevitably requires the availability of resilient IT and data centres, and excellent connectivity to the cloud.

However, there is a downside to having so many large data centres in Ireland, namely the electrical power that is needed to keep them running reliably and efficiently.

The industry has also been under great scrutiny from environmental groups who have questioned their energy demand in line with the country’s environmental goals. Set also within the context of households facing higher energy bills due to a global surge in wholesale power and gas prices, there has been a growing backlash against new developments. Following a public consultation earlier this year, for example, EirGrid announced that they will no longer accept applications for new data centres in Dublin for the foreseeable future, and that any new applications for other parts of the country will be assessed on a ‘case-by case basis’.

Providing a solution

I believe that the data centre industry can play a key role in Ireland’s sustainability ambitions, using innovative technology approaches to design, build and operate sustainable digital infrastructure, enable greater resilience of the grid and generate new green, electrical energy.

For example, one such connection measure required by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) is that new data centres must have onsite dispatchable power generation capacity equal to, or greater than their demand, to be connected. This means the ability to integrate with the grid, to store energy on site and the use of innovative technologies, such as microgrids, present key opportunities for Irish data centre operators to underpin the country’s sustainability ambitions and build greater resilience into the grid.

Microgrids are onsite networks of distributed energy generators and storage systems that are intelligently coordinated with the utility grid to optimise costs and power stability. In some circumstances they can be temporarily removed from the grid to avoid exposure to outages and disturbances, using stored energy to ensure operational continuity.

Typically, most mission-critical facilities, be they data centres, hospitals, or other critical infrastructure, will have emergency onsite backup generators that come online in the event of a prolonged grid outage. Microgrids, on the other hand, encourage the use of renewable energy sources to supplement power from the grid, both to offset the cost of the utility and provide stores of energy.

These may be called upon in an emergency but may also be used temporarily to implement cost-saving strategies such as peak shaving, which is the practice of using stored energy in place of utility power to keep within agreed usage limits and avoid cost penalties for exceeding tariffs.

Microgrid components

A true microgrid can make use of several energy-generating and storage systems. Many installations use onsite generators to produce heat. As these are based on reciprocating engines, they can also be used to generate electricity, a process known as cogeneration or combined heat and power (CHP). In the case of data centres, given the requirement to cool the IT equipment, an alternative system known as combined cooling heating and power (CCHP), or trigeneration, makes use of waste heat to produce chilled water for the cooling function.

CHP and CCHP systems are a very efficient way to combine energy required for ancillary functions like heating and cooling to produce electricity. However, they usually have a significant carbon footprint because they burn fossil fuels. A second component in a true microgrid would be some form of onsite renewable energy production. The optimal type of renewable used would depend on local conditions and might comprise a wind turbine, solar panels, biomass or hydrogen fuel cells to produce energy to supplement the grid.

Along with electrical generation, a microgrid makes use of stored energy to reduce demand on the grid. Although all critical installations will have uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) to provide immediate cover in the event of an outage, additional batteries can be used to store the excess power generated. This can then be used to supplement the UPS systems or to realise demand-management strategies such as peak shaving.

Microgrid control

Critical to any microgrid is the software that collects, coordinates and analyses its demand and generation requirements. Typically this is a three-layer architecture, the first of which comprises smart sensors based on Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, gathering data on the status of all components of the microgrid. The second layer allows localised, real-time control of the assets via software, which monitors them, makes critical decisions and takes cost-optimised actions to control both power generation and consumption to maximise resilience and efficiency.

The third and final software layer includes applications, analytics and services that enable high-level strategic decision making. This combines technical data obtained from the equipment with external information such as weather predictions, including the assessment of conditions favourable to wind or solar generation, energy market pricing or costs for grid electricity, as well as the fuel needed to drive onsite generators.

Not only does such software enable more efficient and sustainable operation of a single site, but it opens up the possibility of microgrid clusters, where several businesses can collaborate or combine their own microgrids to drive economies of scale and share power sources for even operational efficiency.

This, in turn, makes sophisticated energy-sharing programs possible, including energy as a service in which participating sites can outsource management of a microgrid cluster to third-party operators who will coordinate and arbitrate between the power generation and consumption according to demand.

A digital, electric future

The potential of microgrids to deliver more efficient use of energy, and increased use of renewable resources will be a significant tool in delivering a thriving data centre sector, while minimising the burden on the national grid.

However, the challenge of providing adequate power to all parts of an increasingly digital economy is one that requires a coordinated response from all stakeholders including government, energy suppliers, distributors, and consumers of electricity. At Schneider Electric, we believe that our vision of sustainable data centres, and of Electricity 4.0 can play a key role in helping Ireland decarbonise its digital economy. Through the convergence of digital and electric technologies we can make both data centres, and the energy grids of the future, more efficient, sustainable, and resilient.

Furthermore, through this collaborative approach we can unite key stakeholders across the industry, including governmental bodies such as the CRU, national energy grid operators such as EirGrid, and data centre operators, to deliver a green and net zero future.

Looking forward this approach will be essential to build a sustainable and resilient future, and minimise the environmental impact of data centres.

By Simon Bennett, CTO EMEA at Rackspace Technology
Edge computing delivers information at the moment it is needed. Edge computing, simply said, is about reducing the information located in a centralized server, so it is freed up from the issues surrounding latency, bandwidth and geographic distance, making applications such as AI, IoT and 5G much easier to successfully accomplish. By definition, edge computing is moving user data away from a server of origin and closer to the user who needs it – at the edge. By Laura Roman, CMO at EDJX
It’s no secret that edge computing and 5G are intrinsically linked. 5G networks can be up to 500% faster than 4G and support a 100x increase in traffic capacity, but edge computing is central to realising this promise, providing compute and storage power that eliminates backhaul latency issues inherent to a reliance on a central data centre. By Jon Abbot, EMEA Telecom Strategic Clients Director for Vertiv
Andy Connor, EMEA Channel Director, Subzero Engineering, outlines this edge explosion and examines the crucial role of the modular, micro data center in delivering digital transformation.
Marc Garner, VP, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric UK & Ireland The data centre sector skills shortage has been documented by industry publications and research firms for almost a decade. In fact, a report published by Gartner in 2016 found 80% of firms expected to find their growth held back due to a lack of new data centre skills, with the McKinsey Global Institute predicting a global shortage of 1.5 million qualified data centre managers as early as 2015.
Big data, big energy consumption? Each photo we post on social media or email we send is saved into servers that are stored in physical data centres around the world. This process consumes a significant amount of energy, raising sustainability issues in the data centre industry. To help overcome this challenge, Marcin Bala, CTO of telecommunications networks specialist Salumanus Ltd, explains how to create a more sustainable data centre infrastructure.
The hidden cost of data Zero-carbon cooling systems revolutionise data centre energy efficiency. Data underpins every aspect of modern life, with more information generated now than ever before. Keeping data centres cool is crucial for their safe and effective function, but due to the large amounts of waste heat they generate, this requires significant power consumption. To tackle this issue, Glasgow-based green energy pioneer, Katrick Technologies, has developed and patented a unique passive cooling system that removes waste heat without external power required. Here, Katrick Co-CEO Vijay Madlani examines the costs of data centre cooling and how new systems can revolutionise efficiency.