Our world is dependent on data centers and the information that passes through them. The importance of data centers will only increase as more businesses migrate away from on-premises servers to transact business in the cloud. In fact, Gartner predicts that 85% of businesses will move to a cloud-first approach by 2025. Data centers can make this happen, but if electricity outages or other grid issues interrupt services for even just a few minutes, the ripple effects could be far-reaching.
Of course, data center teams understand this pressure and have fail-safes in place to manage potential outages. The problem is that many of these solutions may not be designed for the potential of worsening power outages as the grid continues to age, and they may not be designed to facilitate more sustainable operations. Now is the time to start thinking about alternatives to ensure access to continuous and reliable sources of backup power.
Here’s a look at the technologies that could not only provide protection against interruptions due to outages but also become the main source of power for data centers — allowing operations to become both more energy resilient and sustainable.
BUILDING FOR ENERGY RESILIENCY
Data center outages are growing pricier for both the consumer and the business. For example, if a critical data center powering a bank or credit union goes down, customers may not be able to access their funds. The cost of outages has skyrocketed in the last year alone: 25% of outages in 2022 cost more than $1 million compared to 15% in 2021. That’s a trend operators want to reverse.
Typically, data centers have addressed this uncertainty with a two-pronged backup: A battery would kick in immediately to provide an uninterrupted power supply (UPS), serving as a bridge to a diesel generator designed for longer-term use during the outage. This strategy works well but may not be as favored within the next few years as many companies implement measures to reduce their carbon footprint.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates data centers consume 10 to 50 times more energy per square foot than the standard office building. Their need to keep critical systems running 24/7 requires robust backup power capabilities. With long-duration energy storage paired with renewables entering the market, data centers have more options for backup power than ever before to shift from solely relying on batteries and fossil fuel-fueled generators for backup power.
One of the most promising technologies for long-duration energy storage is the vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB), which extends operation times, allowing a seamless shift from lead batteries to VRFB in lieu of the generator. Vanadium-based batteries, like the existing lead batteries used for UPSs, also have the potential for a circular economy. Batteries used as backup energy solutions— particularly advanced lead, lithium, and VRFB — can help reduce a business’s use of fossil fuels and its carbon footprint. Lead batteries have a long history of being used as a reliable source of UPSs. A key sustainability component of lead batteries produced in the U.S. is that they are typically composed of more than 80% recycled raw materials — an intended result of the industry’s well-established circular economy.
In addition, batteries can be charged with solar, wind, and other clean energies if they are paired with renewable energy sources, further enabling data centers to maintain critical functions during a grid outage.
Cleaner backup power is just one way data centers can improve both energy resiliency during outages and the transition to clean energy. A data center could supplement energy consumption with its own clean energy production — solar, wind, etc. — enabling the use of renewable energy during the peak demand times when power is most expensive. Doing so would help lower their power bills, achieve sustainability goals, and provide the ability to withstand local power outages better.
And, in these microgrids, batteries would be more than just the backup device for data centers. In fact, battery energy storage systems (BESSs) are an integral part of medium- and long-duration storage in a microgrid. Batteries paired with renewable energy sources offer the storage and long lifetimes to become the source for both day-to-day and long-term renewable power. For example, advanced lead, lithium, and vanadium batteries can capture, store ,and release clean energy whenever the microgrid needs it — even after the sun sets or the wind dies, ensuring a continuous clean energy supply and limiting the potential need for curtailment when more energy is produced than is needed at that time. This way, all energy is used and is not wasted.
THE FUTURE OF DATA CENTERS
Now is the time to start futureproofing energy sources, both for resilience and sustainability. The Inflation Reduction Act has increased investment tax credits to 30% for standalone energy storage systems, an attractive incentive for data centers to upgrade and modernize their backup systems. Advanced lead, lithium, and vanadium batteries — renewable and longer lasting, with greater capacity for storage — are the future both for backups and for new data center microgrids.