Microgrids will become indispensable for datacenters from 2023

MicroGrid Power Plant
Cristina De Luca -

February 17, 2023

Over the last ten years, the datacenter industry has undergone a major overhaul. Cloud computing, hyperscale and 5G connections were just some major industry changes that operators had to deal with.

While these new advances have helped to make datacenters more consumer-friendly, they have also posed huge challenges for datacenter operators. How can datacenters be kept sustainable and resilient in the years to come?

The first step was to reduce the carbon footprint by increasing the use of renewable energy. That increased concern about the reliability of that energy, to keep operations running 24 hours, 7 days a week.

The cost of an outage in a datacenter can range from a few hundred dollars for a small business to tens of thousands of dollars per minute in a large “server farm”, making the need for greater power resilience critical.

As the electrical grid becomes less reliable due to ageing infrastructure and the growing impacts of climate change, the frequency, and severity of grid outages worsens, forcing data centre operators to examine alternatives, such as the use of microgrids.

Widely used in hospitals, military bases and other facilities that cannot suffer power interruptions, microgrids can greatly improve the operation of datacenters. Let’s see.

Microgrids are resilient power systems that serve a discrete geographic area, such as a campus, medical complex, shopping centre or neighbourhood. In many ways, they behave like a mini version of the main electricity grid. And they often use different sources of power generation, such as solar panels, fuel cells, natural gas generators, and combined heat and power units. Many incorporate energy storage systems (i.e. batteries), but unlike the typical UPS, they usually employ more robust and powerful lithium-ion battery systems.

The microgrid and the grid operate in parallel — which allows the microgrid to provide benefits beyond increased electrical reliability, such as reduced energy costs and the achievement of sustainability goals. To reduce the cost of datacenter power, it is necessary to reduce the cost of grid power or produce power below the cost of grid power. A microgrid system can allow a datacenter to store energy when it is cheapest and use it whenever it is optimal. When the cost of traditional grid power increases (for example, at times of peak consumption), the microgrid can increase consumption of renewable or stored energy.

HVAC energy consumption is in itself a key factor in the operational cost of a datacenter. Power usage effectiveness (PUE) can only be reduced to a minimum associated with the performance of the cooling system(s) deployed. Even if the most efficient cooling solutions are used to extract the heat from the computing power, the reduction in power cost to operate a datacenter cannot be less than the cost of the sum of the power of the computing equipment being used.

Similarly, while measuring the energy consumption of various processes and systems is an important factor in cost-effective operations, the ability to control this consumption holistically reveals the potential for further enhancements and efficiencies. The most direct example of this is enabling individual system and/or device level control so that a microgrid can shut down non-critical systems and processes to save energy. The stored energy can also be sold back to the grid when it is most economical.

In addition, renewable energy consumption can be maximized to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets. Electricity and fossil fuel consumption are part of the formula for calculating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Managing consumption and using greener energy sources is often a large part of meeting reduction targets.

With the need to use large amounts of continuous, clean and affordable power, datacenters are prime candidates to benefit from microgrids. And now is the perfect time for datacenter infrastructure managers to adopt a solution. The technology is mature, making solutions more affordable and easier to implement than ever before. Worldwide microgrid capacity is expected to grow by more than 20% per year.

Source: Schneider Electric

The total cost of installing microgrids has also been falling, by about 25% to 30% since 2014, according to Schneider Electric. And it is expected to continue on this trajectory in the coming years.

If you were interested, remember that a feasibility study should be carried out to determine the organizational benefits, including investment versus estimated financial return and potential operational gains, also considering improved resilience.

Microgrids are optimised solutions, which consider:

  • The right sizing of DER: to meet datacenter energy goals. After all, the choice of DER will depend on economic and environmental considerations.

  • The use of modular and pre-packaged designs: for installation, operation and maintenance of the transmission line.

  • The cost of financing and operating it: to optimise investments and management. Like many other capital or infrastructure investments, microgrids can be paid for upfront by the customer or financed over time. Several options are available, including the popular “microgrid-as-a-service” approach.

It is also worth remembering that a microgrid system can be thought of as a three-layer architecture. The first includes all the smart (IoT-enabled) connected products, including monitoring and control devices, distributed energy assets, etc.

The middle tier is where ‘edge control’ occurs in real time. A combination of microgrid controllers and associated software that monitor all assets, make critical decisions and cost optimized measures to increase resilience and maximize energy use.

Microgrid controllers share many similarities with other supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, and SCADA-ready equipment and processes can be integrated into grid planning and operation.

The top layer includes applications, analytics, and support services that augment the microgrid solution. Often hosted in the cloud, advanced energy analytics help optimize when and how to produce, consume and store energy to minimize costs and maximize sustainability.

More advanced microgrid solutions also provide proactive protection capabilities. In response to weather data and alerts, a system can “anticipate” approaching conditions and prepare to isolate itself from the grid before a major storm arrives, allowing operations personnel sufficient time to take precautionary measures.

That’s because when it’s up and running – and tests confirm resilient operations – a microgrid requires very little in the way of ongoing operations and maintenance. Unless it is designed to perform daily tasks, a microgrid operates in standby mode, monitoring system health and performance while being prepared to take control in the event of an emergency.

Microgrid control systems and software are not only vigilant in detecting outages and anomalies, but also enable remote monitoring of system health and performance. This can include microgrid system components and other supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) – ready devices such as heating and ventilation systems – mission-critical factors in a datacenter – that can be remotely monitored and integrated with controls.