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October 21, 2015

The challenges of powering the UK’s green data centres

Q&A: Schneider Electric director, Henrik Leerberg, talks power challenges and the abundance of cheap fossil-fuelled electricity.

By Joao Lima

Data centre operators are in a race to become green, but this renewable energy race is, however, throwing up specific obstacles and challenges.

Speaking to CBR, Henrik Leerberg, marketing and strategy director for data centre managed service and software at Schneider Electric, said the greatest threat to going green is an abundant supply of cheap, fossil-fuelled electricity.

CBR: What challenges do national data centre operators face with power?

HL: The challenge for data centre operators is that UK power is mainly generated by fossil fuels [Coal: 31.3%, Oil: 2.3% and Gas: 25%, SE’s figures]. Although the share generated by renewables [22.3%] is growing, this is mainly from wind which creates concerns about intermittency.

Recent governments have been more disposed towards fracking than low carbon means of power generation. There have been pervasive concerns about the lack of capacity in the grid, which could be compromised by persistent cold weather.

Given the UK dependency on the internet both as business necessity and for consumer satisfaction, this should be a major target for upgrade. The UK government has today offered financial incentives (to the Chinese) to upgrade UK nuclear power capacity.

CBR: What can we do, as an industry, to get more data centres embracing green energy?

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HL: UK-based collocation providers such as next generation data centres (NGD) offer to source power purely from Welsh hydro-electric supplies. Some time ago, Infinity SDC proposed a data centre which was powered by bio-fuel generation.

Other non-UK providers such as Green Mountain make similar no-carbon power offers. The fact remains that it is very difficult to actually use green energy exclusively, by virtue of the UK power grid’s architecture.

Schneider Electric some time ago, campaigned for the Nega-Watt, the basis that every watt saved at the point of use, saved three watts at the point of generation. While oil costs were high and energy correspondingly expensive, there was a lot of interest.

The greatest threat to going green is an abundant supply of cheap, fossil-fuelled electricity because it is hard to get people to pay for a clean environment.

CBR: What is Schneider Electric’s take on the green data centre?

HL: It is our view that the greenest data centre is the one in which the power and cooling provision is exactly matched to the IT requirement, so that the waste associated with oversizing and the risks attached to under-provision are entirely mitigated.

In practice, this is hard because most data centres are not run with a constant state of power draw – processors utilise more energy as their workload increases, and since they get hotter at the same time, the power required for cooling increases correspondingly.

In all likelihood, the same data centre will draw more power on a hot day than in will on a cool day, since ambient temperature also has an effect.

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