Can Data Centres Really Go Off Grid?

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Data centre makers want to operate independently of the power grid. That would mean cloud services that close down at night, says Peter Judge

It is true what they say: with great power comes massive electricity bills. And do you wonder if absolute power corrupts? Well forget it. Speaking of electricity, you just can’t get it.

HP’s announcement yesterday of a plan for Net-Zero energy data centres is just the latest evidence that electricity is becoming the most important factor in building places for our processing. It follows other stories from Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook. None of these stories is about what the data centres are doing. It’s all about where the power comes from and how it gets used.

Power to the processors

HP’s Net Zero idea is about reducing a data centre’s dependence on the electric grid. Ultimately the company wants to wean data centres off other power, but initially, it hopes for 80 percent.

This is done partly by the data centre having all its power from renewable sources under its control, or co-located power generation. That is something Microsoft has talked about, and among the tech giants, Apple is closest to providing it. It has promised that all its data centres in the US will operate on renewable energy – and to achieve this has put together record breaking solar and fuel cell plants at its centre in Maiden North Carolina.

Countries with lots of renewable energy stand to gain from this idea. Iceland, has a genuine surplus of electricity, all made from renewable sources, which is enough to persuade data centre builder, Verne Global, to set up shop there expecting business to follow.

The mainland Nordic nations have clubbed together to promote the virtues of cold countries  rich in hydroelectric power. Facebook is building in Lulea Sweden, and Google has one in Finland.

The UK is not lagging in energy co-location. Infinity has the first methane powered data centre I am aware of under construction in Suffolk, and Wales has hydro-powered sites.

What about the load balancing?

The new angle HP is bringing is the idea of load-balancing, shaping the demand to match the supply of renewable energy.Process data while the sun shines, and your solar panels are operating at peak capacity.

I’m not instantly convinced this is anything but a pitch to use more of HP’s sensor-based big data systems. In most cases, at the moment, solar energy is part of the mix. If your site has a surplus, you can sell it to the grid, but most of the time, you will be drawing power from the grid to make up for a lack in your local generation.

But if we ever reach Net Zero, our data centres will attempt to operate independently of the grid. In that case load shaping will be vital. But are there really enough jobs that aren’t time critical and which can be switched to better time periods? I think that cuts against the whole thrust of cloud services, which are all supposed to be instant.

I will be interested to see further working from HP on this subject. And also interested to see if a site like Apple’s Maiden data centre could ever go off the grid. I can’t see Apple asking its users to stop synching iTunes to the iCloud because it’s dark outside.

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