Creating More Resilient Data Centers to Navigate Energy Volatility and Extreme Weather

An astonishing surge of heat across the globe shattered temperature records and marked three days of July 2023 as likely the hottest in Earth’s modern history. When temperatures rise dramatically, data centers also struggle to keep their servers cool. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, energy market volatility is expected to persist. Such volatility significantly threatens data center operations worldwide, affecting uptime and profitability.

As load requirements surge, supply of electricity is stressed. Extreme heat and severe weather events challenge data center design, location, and operation. These threats are anticipated to persist and escalate further in the near future. To gain acceptance from host communities and countries, data center operators must demonstrate that they are not merely competitors for scarce energy resources but can become an integral part of the solution. A cleaner and more resilient energy system is achievable, with digitization at its core, and data centers playing a pivotal role as the conduits for all digital solutions.

How can data center operators safeguard their operations against extreme weather that causes cost fluctuations and outages while also demonstrating their role in addressing climate challenges?

Prioritizing Energy Efficiency

Data center operators employ a range of tools to safeguard their budgets from energy price surges and prevent outages. The initial step for any data center should be to optimize energy efficiency. While the measurement of power usage effectiveness (PUE) has contributed to significant efficiency enhancements over the last decade, industry-wide PUE has shown limited progress over the past four years. Therefore, further advancements are necessary to achieve more significant gains. Promising developments are emerging in the form of innovative cooling systems, efficient uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs), and advanced monitoring and control systems for power, building infrastructure, and information technology (IT) operations.

Embracing Energy Procurement Diversification

Data center operators can effectively navigate cost fluctuations by adopting a diverse energy portfolio, particularly emphasizing renewable sources that are not susceptible to fuel price fluctuations. Securing long-term power purchasing agreements (PPAs) by investing strategically in offsite renewable energy can contribute clean power to the grid and showcase the data center’s commitment to environmental sustainability, which benefits many. Furthermore, a diverse energy portfolio with a strong focus on renewables enables data centers to reduce their Scope 2 carbon footprint. This proactive approach plays a crucial role in combating climate change and minimizing potential energy volatility in the future.

However, genuinely achieving regenerative power for a data center requires more than just relying on PPAs, energy credits, or offsite renewable grid sources from utilities. Although dependent on geographical constrains, qualifying options include onsite hydro plants leveraging a running river, as well as solar and wind power. However, data centers must also operate during challenging conditions such as droughts, zero wind, and darkness, necessitating substantial energy storage capabilities.

Implementing a sustainable onsite power generation, aka microgrid, offers the ability to optimize cost performance by leveraging automated grid interaction controls. Moreover, a data center microgrid has the potential to alleviate grid congestion and mitigate public opposition by reducing the strain on the existing power infrastructure. Notably, by incorporating higher-capacity assets like natural gas generators, fueled by renewable natural gas (RNG) and fuel cells, a microgrid can enhance a data center’s resilience to extended outages, surpassing the limitations of relying solely on onsite diesel fuel reserves.

Focusing on Circularity

During construction, data centers extensively utilize materials such as cement, steel, lumber, and aluminum in their core infrastructure, shell, and power systems. IT systems and battery backups also introduce elements like plastics, lead, gold, and lithium. Achieving 100% recyclability is essential for both the hardware and building materials employed in order to make a data center truly sustainable. Modeling and analyzing the data center designs with tools like building information modeling (BIM) and digital twins enable the assessment of recyclability factors. These insights can be used to modify designs to maximize the recyclability of both the core infrastructure and IT systems.

Looking ahead, the ultimate goal is to make the entire data center recyclable, as this is a crucial requirement for it to be considered truly regenerative. As data center operators face increasing challenges due to climate change and energy market volatility, they can safeguard their operations by prioritizing strategies that help navigate cost fluctuations, enhance resilience, and reduce the carbon footprint. The future regenerative data center has the potential to be a self-sustaining facility characterized by energy efficiency, diverse energy procurement, water neutrality, and 100% circular materials that eliminate landfill waste. By embracing these approaches, data center operators can not only ensure the reliability and profitability of their operations, but also contribute to a more sustainable and resilient energy future.

Carsten Baumann is Director Strategic Initiatives & Solution Architect, Schneider Electric.

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