Who's gone off grid?
The idea of the off-grid data center has gained in popularity recently. Grid Power availability is coming under question in many locations, and companies want to take control of their emissions. Disconnecting from the grid could be a way to insulate yourself from the world and then take steps to reduce your impact on it.
But I don’t hear about many off-grid data centers in the press releases I receive. Microsoft has a test data center in Wyoming which is powered by methane produced from waste. eBay has a Utah data center which runs off Bloom boxes, and that’s pretty much it in recent years.
However, there’s actually a large sector of off-grid facilities, which I was reminded off last week.
I received a release about a new data center in Ireland which will be off the electricity grid, powered by gas generators. But this site doesn’t have a long-term goal of operating independently.
The company’s eventual plan is to run the data center using power from the electric grid, but it wanted its data center online quickly, and the power substation couldn’t be connected until 2019. So they called Aggreko, who supply gas generators. Aggreko will provide 14MW to run the data center, plus another 4MW as a contingency until the mains is connected.
Aggreko actually provides a lot of this kind of power, to data centers and other facilities. Many of these data center customers are in developing nations, where the power can be less reliable.
Photo by: datacenterdynamics.com
Developing countries, it turns out, are the ones where off-grid operation is considered normal. In some countries, the power networks have rolling blackouts or regular brownouts. If you want to provide a reliable service in these countries, you need more than just a UPS - they need a continuous power supply.
In Ireland, Aggreko’s customer wants to keep its name out of the story. To be honest, data centers in Ireland are being built at such a rate, it’s not at all obvious who it is: Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft all have data centers at some stage of development in Ireland, and there are plenty of colos and other providers in the mix.
The reasons for the secrecy are fairly obvious. Most big data center and cloud providers have plans to move to renewable energy, and gas is a step away from that. Gas generation on site can be more efficient than remotely generated coal-fired electricity, but gas is still a fossil fuel.
Since gas power might be perceived to be less reliable than the grid or other energy sources, the data center in this story has another reason to say quiet.
For most companies, going off grid would be a backward step. Unless you have a large hydroelectric power source, the only way to move to renewable energy is to stay on the grid and act to put more renewable energy into that grid, by funding solar and wind farms using power purchase agreements (PPAs).
There are exceptions, but for most of us, going off-grid is not really a goal.