European Data Centers To Adopt Flexibility Or Face Barriers
- Feb 18, 2022 9:18 am GMT
European data centers are finding it harder to connect to the grid. Their large energy demand strains local supply and threatens national environmental goals, breeding local opposition. At the same time, economies need to build more data centers to support the growing demand for digital services. Data centers can avoid some of the issues by adapting the way they use energy and responding to the grid’s needs. This flexibility would ease the challenges of integrating more renewables and help serve the rising demand from electric vehicles.
By 2030, power demand from large data centers will almost double in five key European markets: Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway and the U.K. These facilities will draw 5.4 gigawatts from grid, using 48 terawatt-hours a year, according to a new report by BloombergNEF Data Centers and Decarboniz
sation: Unlocking Flexibility in Europe’s Data Cent rers. This power demand represents 3.7% of those countries’ total electricity use in 2030, up from 2.3% in 2021.
While small in percentage terms, the impact of data centers varies by country. Ireland and Germany have similar data-center capacities, but in the much smaller Irish power system, they represent 24% of total power use, compared to 1.5% in Germany. But where data centers have the greatest demand, they also offer the greatest flexibility and benefits.
Data-center flexibility comes from shifting computational load to different times of the day, such as away from winter evening peaks, or using on-site back-up power to avoid grid usage during times of grid congestion. Most back-up generation is diesel and so environmentally not suitable for supporting the grid. Companies like Microsoft are exploring the use of hydrogen for back-up power, which would be a cleaner alternative. Additionally, present in all data centers are uninterruptible power systems (UPS), which is often large power equipment that ensure the continuous operation of the site in the event of a power outage, before backup generators come online. UPS have a large power output but can only do so for a few minutes. This means they are well suited to providing flexibility like frequency response, which will be needed more and more as wind and solar farms replace coal plants.
Data center capacity highlighted in the report hosts 16.9GW of flexibility in 2030, which equates to a quarter of the U.K.’s peak demand today. Due to operational, legal and regulatory barriers, however, that flexible capacity plummets to 3.8GW. While technology is currently available to enable much more capacity, data-center operators are cautious due to the high standard of service that customers demand. Several pilots and trials show that data centers can technically provide flexibility to the grid with little impact on operations. Already in Scandinavia, data centers operated by Digiplex and Basefarm are using their UPS to support the grid. Companies such as Google and Microsoft already shift their computational loads to make best use of their servers, but more can be done.
Greater incentives are needed to encourage this flexible behavior. Power markets should value flexibility and open that value to all grid users. The environmental benefits of flexibility need to be properly assessed and assigned to participants. Businesses are ever more aware of their carbon impact and environmental benefits such as this may be the strongest lever to boost data-center flexibility.
Pushback on data center development in Germany, Netherlands and Ireland are signals that something needs to change. While developers move to other markets such as Norway, adopting more flexible operation would mean data centers would find it easier to connect to the grid.
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