Will Data Centres Take Part In Demand Reduction?

Peter Judge

British energy policy is moving towards demand reduction. Peter Judge thinks there may be a way for data centres to take part

Energy policy in the UK is developing very slowly, but there are signs of new things happening. Data centres may have to act cleverly to benefit from the next stages, however.

After the floods and bad weather, there were calls for the government to acknowledge the role of manmade climate change, and beef up its policies in the area. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said he “very much suspects” that climate change is involved in the weather patterns.

ed daveyLib Dem lashes deniers

Energy Minister Ed Davey also spoke up with a slightly more pointed warning that climate change deniers are “undermining public trust in the scientific evidence for climate change”.

The Liberal Democrat MP exposed strains in the coalition over energy and climate policy when he warned that some of his Conservative partners are still discrediting the science. He is fairly obviously thinking of his Conservative colleague, Environment Minister Owen Paterson, who has publicly cast doubt on man-made global warming. An Internet campaign is calling for Paterson to be sacked.

What does Davey propose we do about energy and climate change though? He’s written to the energy regulator, Ofgem; mainly to urge the body to curb utility profits and keep energy prices down (which is not an inherently green move).

He is also promoting a coming £20 million programme of energy demand reduction measures, which is not the answer to all our problems, but is a step in the right direction.

Demand reduction gets backing

It’s not clear what projects will be covered by this programme, but the general idea is to pay organisations for reducing and managing their energy use. In particular, the scheme will try to reduce the peaks of demand, and make demand more “movable”.

As we move (somehow) towards renewable sources, we will be relying on a less predictable energy source. If the big consumers can shift their demand to match the supply, there will be less need for big baseline generation, which is usually provided by fossil fuels.

Data centre owners’ first response may well be, so what? Data centres have a continuous demand. They need to keep their data centres going all the time. If there is any fluctuation in the power they demand, it’s likely to be in step with the rest of the demand on the grid, following office hours and evenings, adding to the problem of demand fluctuation, not reducing it. So how can they reduce demand?

Remember there’s a move towards on-site generation, with data centres starting to make their own electricity through biomass, solar and fuel cells. Few data centres can go completely off-grid, but many can shift some of their demand away from the utilities. In the US, Apple’s solar power efforts, while the UK has seen on-site generation tried through biomass and other methods.

These moves often make sense on their own, but if there’s an extra subsidy from Davey’s demand reduction schemes, that could tip the balance further in favour, and make more on-site generation happen. It would also mark a positive – if gradual turnaround. Back in 2009, BT complained that the accounting rules at the time actually acted against it building a planned wind farm.

The demand reduction scheme has been hinted at for a long while. Last May, it emerged as part of an Energy Bill. The £20 million figure was announced back in September 2013, but nothing further will happen until June of this year,

At that point, firms will be invited to apply to join the scheme, with a closing date of October.

I hope there’s a place for data centres in the scheme when it emerges, and that British data centres will get involved.

Renewable energy – it’s an evergreen subject!