The energy transition is unlocking new opportunities for innovation across industries as businesses seek to harness renewables, such as solar and wind along with energy storage to reduce their reliance on grid power and lower their carbon footprints. Nowhere is the sustainability opportunity greater than in the data center.
As the need for data center power continues to grow, more operators will look to innovative solutions to help them meet sustainability goals while offsetting the demand for grid energy. Fortunately, a new solution is emerging that uses existing data center technology — specifically, the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) — to transform data centers into an energy-producing assets for the grid.
Impact of renewables on the grid
Renewable energy sources, particularly wind and solar, carry important engineering opportunities for grid operators. One such opportunity is the addition of renewables in data centers, which can lead to fluctuating power output with periods of over- and under-supply. An electrical grid system must constantly match consumption with electricity production to ensure grid and frequency stability.
Grid operators are developing ways to manage that grid stability 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.
The good news is that many data centers can leverage existing technology to help enable DER capabilities — whether they know it or not.
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 UPSs — sophisticated battery systems that step in to keep everything running when grid supply fails and transfer power to a backup generator or long-duration energy storage.
A UPS can respond instantly to changes in supply and deliver large amounts of power while maintaining a high level of reliability. In other words, the qualities needed to support stable data center operation also make them ideal for serving as DERs and providing ancillary services to the grid, such as bidirectional flow of energy to help stabilize grid frequency.Making this a reality requires work though. Data center UPSs 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 successfully pilot the technology at the Microsoft Innovation Center in Boydton, Virginia, and in a data center in Chicago.
This technology holds exciting new possibilities for data centers to accelerate more sustainable energy supplies and achieve sustainability goals by optimizing energy infrastructure in a way that also earns new revenue streams from essential assets. If the data center’s utility rate structure includes high demand charges, the UPS batteries can be called on to curtail peak power draw from the utility, reducing costly demand charges. Additionally, data centers with time-of-use rates can supplement their loads with UPS batteries during periods of high energy rates, recharging batteries during times of low energy rates. Finally, they can supplement existing load-reduction techniques or generator use when participating in utility-sponsored demand response (DR) programs.
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 bidirectional and grid-interactive. Until recently, a system like a UPS was a necessary expense for operation. 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 ensure they are implemented effectively.
The grid-interactive future is now
As data centers continue to take a central role in people’s 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” data center solutions will provide the critical enabling technology to help data centers become not only power users but also an asset for the grid. Harnessing this technology with the innovation in energy storage will help data center operators optimize energy usage, reduce the cost of energy through demand response integration, support the grid to enable greater adoption of renewables, and advance their organizations’ sustainability objectives.