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Data Centers and the Move to Smarter Grids

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Julian Jackson's picture
writer and researcher BrightGreen PR

Julian Jackson is a writer whose interests encompass business and technology, cryptocurrencies, energy and the environment, as well as photography and film. His portfolio is...

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  • Sep 3, 2021 5:15 pm GMT
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Computer data centers use a lot of power. Many people see them as part of the emissions problem, but could upgraded facilities be part of the low-carbon transition?

Battery technology is rapidly improving. The impulse behind cleaning up energy that powers data centers together with reducing battery costs have created an opportunity for data center facilities to be part of a smart grid load management program.

The plan is to use energy that data centers already store as a backup to balance utility grids, where intermittent renewable energy sources increase load stresses. This proposal is in its infancy as progress will be needed before most electrical grids are made “smart” enough for this to be practical, but a convergence of factors has made this an opportune moment for it to be piloted.

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Data centers need power 24/7/365 so are equipped with various backups, including batteries. With a bidirectional grid, and given the reduction in costs and improvements in battery power generally the data centers can be useful in balancing loads. Google has already tried “load-shifting” to balance when non-urgent tasks are processed with wind or solar availability, reducing the carbon-intensity of the electricity used. This year one of its data centers in Belgium experimented with using lithium ion batteries instead of diesel generators as backup power. The reserve power could be used for load balancing the local grid.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is also investigating this area: The Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) provides best practice guidance for all sizes of data center to reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint. As battery costs come down this will be a standard method of power backup.

Researchers at the University of Washington examined a Microsoft data center to see whether its battery system could be used for both data center backup and grid services. They concluded the company could cut its annual electricity bill by nearly 11% by lowering energy use at peak usage times. In addition, data center companies could add a new revenue stream by offering power services to the grid.

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Bob Meinetz on Sep 4, 2021

Julian, that Microsoft can "cut its annual electricity bill by nearly 11% by lowering energy use at peak usage times", and "data center companies could add a new revenue stream by offering power services to the grid",  I'm sure is exciting news for CEOs eager to enhance their balance sheets. They're doing no favors for the environment, though.
Due to internal resistance losses and bi-directional inversion (AC to DC and back again) storing energy in any electrochemical battery wastes energy. Unless the stored energy is exclusively produced by 100% renewable sources (I have yet to find one commercial facility where is is), storage increases CO2 emissions.

A 2015 study, Bulk Energy Storage Increases United States Electricity System Emissions, quantified just how much:

"We find that net system CO2 emissions resulting from storage operation are nontrivial when compared to the emissions from electricity generation, ranging from 104 to 407 kg/MWh of delivered energy depending on location, storage operation mode, and assumptions regarding carbon intensity."

Whatever grid mix is used to charge them, whatever time of day: storing electricity in batteries essentially doubles its CO2 footprint.

When I point this out to renewables actvists relying on batteries to solve the problem of intermittency, they never have an answer - because there is no answer. Generating electricity with solar and wind is a package deal: it relies on either gas generation or batteries to smooth out their unreliable, intermittent production, and both increase CO2 emissions. In the fight against climate change, it's a loser.
 

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