London Buildings Pack MicroGrids And Death Rays

Peter Judge

Adding renewable energy to a building makes sense – but solar power can be dangerous, says Peter Judge

Data centres are adopting “microgrids” based on their own local electricity generation, often from renewable sources – and the trend is starting to spread out to the wider world of business buildings. Worryingly, at least one building has accidentally used renewable energy rather destructively.

Microgrids make data centres less dependent on the electricity grid, but in fact they are still connected to the utility, using  the grid for backup, and their own generation capacity for their primary energy source.

strata tower wind turbinesFuel cells are blooming 

There is a growing trend for fuel cells – like the Bloom boxes used at eBay’s Utah centre – to take a bigger role, and allow the data center to do without messy and awkward diesel backup.

Followng eBay, JP Morgan has gone with Bloom too, with a 500kW pilot data center at its Delaware site.
It’s partly a bet that natural gas (which powers fuel cells) will remain cheap thanks to fracking in the US, and also a move to reduce emissions at the site, since fuel cells are cleaner than diesels.

For office buildings looking for green kudos, fuel cells looks like a better bet than some previous attempts to build cleaner energy into a site.

London’s Strata Tower (shown above, built in 2010, and also known as the Razor) has three 19kW turbines built into the top, which were supposed to generate 50MWh of electricity a year, but which are generally seen as a failed bit of greenwash.

They were only ever claimed to produce eight percent of the power demand of the shared part of the building – but Londoners don’t believe they are doing anything of the sort, since the turbines have rarely been seen to move. Rumour has it that the owners of penthouse suites in the Razor complained of noise and vibration.

Walkie Talkie Building London © strata tower wind turbines  Ron Ellis

Three years on, London’s getting another wacky-shaped building, called the Walkie Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street). This has 300kW of fuel cell power, which the developer admits costs more than buying the same electricity from the grid, but which contribute to its high green rating.


Enter the death ray

The building does also have generator back up. According to the specs, about 11MW of it. So the fuel cell can’t be supplying the building’s total needs, and isn’t displacing diesel.

Still, it clocks up another microgrid win for fuel cells.

But unfortunately, right now the Walkie Talkie building is better known for an unintentional display of renewable energy – in the form of a solar death ray which has given it another name: the “fryscraper”.

The building actually melted parts of a Jaguar parked outside it, when its curved sides focussed a beam of sunlight. The phenomenon happens at certain times of year when the sun is low, and temperatures of 91C have been recorded in parking spots near the building.
Looks like the Walkie Talkie building aimed for a microgrid – and got a macrogriddle.

A version of this article appeared on Green Data Center News