Energy supply volatility is increasingly placing data centre construction and operations at risk. Billy Durie, Global Sector Head – Data Centres at Aggreko looks at what can be done to safeguard data centre uptime.
Data centres play a crucial role in the worldwide economy. The sheer level of demand for digital services has put the sector on an upwards trajectory that shows little sign of abating. But while this exponential growth has previously insulated the industry from market pressures, this may no longer be the case.
While energy use, sustainability and third-party oversight have traditionally been influential factors in facility construction and operations, they have tended to take a back seat to the most important metric of all – uptime. Given the crucial role data centres play at all levels of society, from business to government to personal use, any potential facility downtime can have major knock-on effects. This is why the benchmark for uptime, 99.999%, is so high – very little margin for error is allowed for such critical infrastructure.
However, under-strain national power grids and ensuing outages are potentially placing facilities at greater risk, forcing issues around energy supply and volatility into the spotlight. Of course, grid strain has long been a concern, with major hubs such as Dublin and Amsterdam experiencing sporadic moratoriums on data centre construction. Yet with the ongoing transition to more intermittent green energy sources and the grid supply volatility caused by the Ukrainian war, the problem is now more acute.
But despite these looming constraints, the data centre sector continues to grow. In Germany alone, plans for two large data centres outside Berlin have been announced this year, as well as a further facility in Frankfurt, where grid strain has led to new energy efficiency laws being proposed by the city council. This expansion can be seen on a wider scale too, with built environment body CBRE forecasting that 524 MW of capacity will be added to the other FLAP-D markets alongside Frankfurt – London, Amsterdam, Paris and Dublin – over 2023.
When considered alongside Uptime Institute statistics showing power remains the leading cause of significant power outages for facilities and these events becoming longer and more expensive, reliable energy provision should not be taken for granted. Against this backdrop, maintaining extremely high uptime will become more challenging. Data centre stakeholders therefore need to audit energy supplies and infrastructure for new and existing facilities to safeguard overall resilience.
Researching markets and regions
These pressures were key drivers behind Aggreko’s latest market research, in which 700 data centre professionals were surveyed across the British, Irish, Dutch, German, French, Norwegian and Swedish markets. The respondents, who all worked for large businesses in these nations, provided feedback on threats posed to the data centre sector in two new reports titled Uptime on the Line. Focusing on data centre construction and operations respectively, each whitepaper explores important topics such as local energy pricing, power outages, supply chain delays and the condition of current grid infrastructure, and their impact on the sector.
Both reports shed light on the unique regional challenges and shared struggles the data centre sector is facing across the continent. While regional responses differed on certain critical considerations such as facility location and whether respective national grids could meet facility demand, key trends could be identified on other pivotal issues.
For instance, the importance of collaborating with suppliers prioritising environmental and social responsibility strategies resonated among those surveyed. Additionally, the potential role of demand side response (DSR) in offsetting energy costs was of significant interest.
Yet one thing became evident from responses across the board, regardless of nation – the need to question the viability of relying on conventional centralised energy models and ageing onsite equipment. Given the worsening situation posed by more intermittent grid supplies and increased strain from the booming data centre market, a new consensus must be reached over maintaining uptime. If not, operators tasked with powering existing sites and facilities may find it difficult to service additional demand for digital services.
This assessment also does not account for issues posed by the weather. The scorching heatwaves of summer 2023 may become the new norm, with all sectors, including data centres, bracing for more extreme and unseasonal weather patterns. Being able to adequately cool server halls can no longer be taken for granted, and instead, a new approach to temperature control is necessary to guard against rising temperatures.
Addressing energy challenges
These external challenges mean facility stakeholders must develop both long-term strategies and short-term solutions to bolster resilience and ensure a smooth transition to sustainable practices. However, with capital expenditure budgets continually strained and energy provision and pricing in constant flux, permanent installations may prove financially infeasible or could quickly become inefficient, outmoded or even stranded due to evolving site requirements.
In this context, innovative technologies and procurement methods may offer data centre stakeholders a way to mitigate potential disruption. As highlighted in the Uptime on the Line reports, hired Stage V Generators, for example, can potentially serve as a short-term, tactical, bridging solution where the grid may struggle meet demand. Fuelled by greener sources such as hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO), these generators can be deployed swiftly to provide scalable power while substantially reducing emissions compared to fossil fuel alternatives.
Furthermore, integrating Battery Energy Storage Solutions (BESS) technologies alongside generators can allow sites greater flexibility when confronted with fluctuating power demand over extended periods. The adoption of these solutions presents a practical next step towards reliable green power that preserves that 99.999% uptime benchmark, while reducing dependence on outdated equipment or strained, ageing energy infrastructure.
These wide-ranging utility provision challenges will only intensify and must be navigated effectively for data centre stakeholders to capitalise on the sector’s continued upward trajectory. Adaptable, hired power and temperature control equipment, deployed in modular configurations through a flexible provider, will prove pivotal to navigating these uncertain times for the sector.
Facility owners and operators should therefore align themselves with suppliers offering extensive equipment portfolios and expertise if they are to remain ahead of the curve. Sustaining uninterrupted data centre uptime will undoubtedly become more challenging, but with a well-defined roadmap to resilience, these existing concerns can be mitigated and addressed.