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The future of power generation for data centres

Matt Lovell, CTO, Pulsant

The provision of power continues to be a crucial issue for the country, and particularly for industries that are heavily dependent on the reliable and cost-effective supply of electricity to keep operations streamlined and available. The data centre is a case in point. Data centres account for around 5% of electricity consumption across the EU and have been demonised by green groups for their carbon footprint. Therefore the industry is working hard to reduce costs and environmental impact.

Overall demand in the UK has not risen dramatically over the last 10 years but the change in lifestyle – flexible working, increase in shift and weekend work, as well as the increase of online shopping and services – has created new peaks of demand. Power generation has also shifted in the past decade with renewable energy making up about 10% of capacity, coal and gas making up the majority at 70% with nuclear and imported power comprising the rest.

Going forward there will be a continued strain to keep up with demand and meet agreed carbon reduction commitments. By 2035 it is anticipated that the UK’s current nuclear power stations will be shut down as they reach the end of their lifecycles. So where will this additional capacity come from?

The recent announcement to build a new nuclear plant – the first since 1995 in the UK and the first globally since the Fukushima disaster – will partly address this. However, prices are forecast to continue to rise so more needs to be done. Many providers will continue to increase investment to generate their own electricity. Given the specialist workforce and personnel often employed to design and operate data centres, many already possess the skills in high voltage and capital-intensive infrastructure to seriously consider building and operating electrical generation capacity.

As a Green Grid member, Pulsant sources all of its energy from renewable sources and other data centre providers are also looking to go green. Many will seek to register and generate power from renewable sources, namely solar, wind and hydroelectric projects. For larger operators, the initial investments could yield a return in as little as two to three years.

From a government perspective, the development of self-generation projects should be strongly supported – removing the demand of energy intensive operations from overall capacity will ultimately create greater efficiencies in the wider national grid and optimise investment in new generation facilities.

While self-generation may be the answer for data centre operators, it is certainly not the only solution. Providers should also look to the efficiency and green credentials of the data centre itself by continuous investment in reducing carbon emissions, making optimum use of resources as well as using renewable energy sources.

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