From Energy Users to Energy Producers

Making data centers an asset to the grid rather than a drain

The speed at which data centers have become central to our lives is nothing short of astounding. But like any paradigm shift, it doesn’t come without trade-offs. And one of those trade-offs is increasing energy usage.

In 2018, Nature reported that data centers and the networks associated with them may lead to information and communications technology (ICT) requiring 21% of total electricity production by 2030. While some data center-based solutions may be more energy efficient than the processes they replace, this growth still creates challenges regarding our urgent need to decarbonize power production and meet climate targets. The increasing amount of infrastructure moving to data centers creates more urgency to develop new ways to make data centers an asset to the electrical grid rather than a drain on it.

Impact of Renewables on the Grid

Renewable energy sources, particularly wind and solar, are rapidly growing in adoption as a key source of energy for the grid. However, they carry important engineering challenges and other issues that cannot be overlooked. One such challenge is that these renewable energy sources, by nature, can fluctuate in their output.

It’s easy to see how this leads to potential problems. An electrical grid system must constantly match consumption with electricity production. This is fundamental to grid and frequency stability. But if renewables have fluctuating output, periods of over- and under-supply are inevitable.

Grid operators are developing ways to manage that potential mismatch through the use of distributed energy resources (DERs). These resources, when placed strategically on the grid, can help stabilize power distribution to offset any instability caused by renewable sources, ultimately helping to enable successful adoption of renewables. This opens the door for commercial building operators and even residential power users to bring DER capabilities “behind the meter” and offset their own energy usage. Perhaps nowhere is this opportunity greater than in the data center.

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Rethinking the Data Center

On the one hand, an increasingly digitalized world means more IT infrastructure requiring greater amounts of power from data centers. On the other, an enthusiastic uptake of renewable energy requires innovation to help maintain the security of the power supply.

These are not independent problems, and the changes on the horizon create the potential for more than a replacement of existing systems. As power systems are transformed and digital technology is adopted across everything from manufacturing to healthcare, this creates opportunity to not just keep the lights on, but to rethink everything about how these essential services work.

Data centers, of course, cannot afford power instability: by necessity, they must be "always-on" to support critical services powering governments, life and safety services, financial institutions and more. To ensure continuous power, data centers are outfitted with uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) — sophisticated battery systems and backup generators which step in to keep everything running when grid supply fails.

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Graphic courtesy of Eaton


A UPS needs to respond instantly to changes in supply and deliver large amounts of power while maintaining a high level of reliability. In other words, the qualities they need to support stable data center operation also make them ideal for serving as DERs and providing ancillary services to the grid, such as bi-directional flow of energy, that can help stabilize grid frequency.

Making this a reality requires work; a data center UPS will need to be aware of grid conditions to provide adequate amounts of stabilizing power, while the grid must be ready to receive supply from data centers as well as deliver power to them. A UPS will not inherently possess these capabilities. Instead, it requires building a software layer into the UPS that enables it to recognize when stabilization is needed and how much power is required. Eaton has developed these capabilities in its EnergyAware UPS and worked with Microsoft to pilot the technology at the Microsoft Innovation Center in Boydton, Virginia. Additionally, an EnergyAware UPS at Eaton’s headquarters in Dublin is now successfully providing fast frequency response services to the local grid by reducing the building’s demand when grid frequency drops.

What this requires is a complete rethink of the role of power consumers on the grid. Previously, electricity transmission was a one-way flow from production to consumption; now, it can be bi-directional and grid-interactive. Until recently, a system like a UPS was an operational necessity and a necessary expense. Now, it can be a source of revenue when ancillary services are sold back to the grid operator. Both data center operators and grid operators will need to work together to understand the potential for these capabilities to help reduce strain on the grid and ensure they are implemented effectively.

The Grid-Interactive Future Is Now

As data centers continue to take a central role in our lives, the need to offset the energy they consume will become more imperative. Thankfully, data center operators will soon have the opportunity to not only accomplish this, but also engage with the electrical grid in a way that helps accelerate the integration of renewable energy sources. “Grid-interactive” UPS solutions will provide the critical enabling technology to help data centers become not only power users but also power producers. Harnessing this innovation will help data center operators optimize energy usage, reduce the cost of energy through demand response integration, support the grid to allow greater adoption of renewables and advance their organizations’ sustainability objectives.

Janne Paananen

Janne Paananen is technology manager for critical power solutions organization at Eaton EMEA. He has over 20 years of experience specializing in large UPS system solutions for data centers and special applications.

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Ehsan Nasr

Ehsan Nasr, Ph.D, P.Eng. SMIEEE, is a senior infrastructure engineer and technical lead for data center advanced development, cloud operation, and innovation at Microsoft. He leads the advanced energy storage and grid-interactive data center program. He is actively involved in new technologies development, participates in several IEEE task forces and working groups, and has published more than 20 technical journal and conference papers.

Image courtesy of Eaton

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