It's time to rethink data centre power

By Tod Higinbotham, COO, ZincFive.

For the past two decades, US energy consumption has remained relatively steady, with growth in demand tempered by advances in energy efficiency. Then, generative AI changed everything. 

With businesses clamoring to harness the potential of AI, data center operators have a mandate to outfit their facilities with the latest CPUs, GPUs and other components that power the most demanding workloads. That level of power, however, has sparked a surge in electricity needs. And meeting those needs is harder than it sounds. 

Already, data center projects are being hamstrung by power problems. Data center operators need more power -- and they need it from clean power sources. They also need a transmission system that can handle a heavier load. The burden, however, doesn't belong solely to utility providers. Data center operators also need to innovate. By rethinking data center design, operators can minimize their power needs. Meanwhile, they need to strategically monitor and manage their power usage to ensure optimal operations. 

The AI revolution is fully under way. But without a top-to-bottom reassessment of power solutions, its progress could slow to a crawl. 

A surge in demand 

Insufficient power resources are already slowing projects down by years, according to a recent report from Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial real estate services firm. 

"Over the past year, power has become the number one consideration for data center operators as they conduct site selection to rapidly grow their portfolios," the firm's 2024 Global Data Center Market Comparison says. "Many utility providers are suggesting wait times of 2-3 years or more for sizable power to be delivered to their developments."

Data center operators are expanding their footprint in anticipation of the growth of AI. Currently, hyperscalers need around 10 kW to 14 kW per rack, the commercial property consultancy Newmark noted in a recent report. However, AI workloads will push that requirement up to 40 kW to 60 kW per rack. All told, Newmark expects AI to drive US data center demand to 35 GW by 2030, up from 17 GW in 2022.

As they anticipate greater power demands driven by AI, data center architects should consider what types of AI loads they are building for -- in other words, whether a data center operator will manage primarily inference or training. With AI training, there may be extreme load steps that require larger utility feeds or the use of innovative battery storage. There is interest in using batteries to offload these peaks and spare the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) from these load steps. These batteries could be located relatively close to AI servers and allow for a significant reduction in utility MWs to the facility. 

Securing access to different power sources, transmission lines 

When data center architects plot out new builds, they aren't just thinking about power availability but also the source of that power. Across the globe, more stringent regulatory environments as well as pressure from corporate stakeholders are driving data center operators to step up their reliance on renewable energy. 

The demand for renewable power is reflected in forecasts for U.S. energy production: Solar installations will account for "almost all growth" in US power generation in 2024-2025, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Utilities are opting for solar installations, Reuters notes, thanks to tax credits available from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

While the shift to clean energy is happening, data center developers still need to think strategically about siting new facilities. Even with the increase in solar installations, the EIA said that by 2025, solar will still only account for 7% of power production in the US. 

Along with power generation, data center developers need to consider transmission. On both of these matters, developers can collaborate directly with utility providers to ensure they can access the power they need. 

The US electric grid faces capacity shortfalls, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) warned in December, due to increases in demand and fossil fuel generators coming offline. 

Delivering sustainable backup power

Transmission lines should also be assessed for reliability. Aging transmission lines, as well as transmission lines impacted by extreme weather events, can potentially cause costly outages. Power issues are consistently the most common cause of serious and severe data center outages, the Uptime Institute found in its annual outage analysis. More than half of the respondents surveyed by the Institute said their most recent significant, serious or severe outage cost more than $100,000. 

The costly nature of outages underscores the importance of backup power systems. As with other power sources in the data center, developers face an imperative to make backup systems sustainable. 

Nickel-zinc (NiZn) batteries, an innovation in battery technology led by ZincFive, can power UPS systems more sustainably than traditional lead-acid batteries or lithium-ion batteries. In comparison to other chemistries, NiZn produces lower GHG emissions and offers a smaller water footprint and energy footprint. Specifically, NiZn batteries' lifetime greenhouse gas emissions are 4x lower than lead-acid and 6x lower than lithium-ion emissions. Nickel-zinc batteries use common, widely available, conflict-free materials. They're also highly recyclable. 

Meanwhile, major corporations are exploring a range of alternative energy sources for backup generators. Microsoft, for instance, has been testing the viability of using large-format hydrogen fuel cells to supply data center backup power. Microsoft is also installing a "resiliency microgrid," which relies on renewable natural gas, for backup power at its San Jose, Calif. data center.

Dealing with heat

Data center developers and operators should also be looking for ways to more efficiently manage the heat generated by their infrastructure. Cooling systems are all the more critical as businesses adopt AI and HPC systems that emit greater levels of heat. Typically, cooling systems consume around 40% of a data center's power. 

In addition to offering sustainable backup power, NiZn batteries allow data center operators to reduce the footprint of their cooling systems and other safety infrastructure. Nickel-zinc batteries exhibit no thermal runaway at the cell level and are thus non-flammable, unlike other UPS battery alternatives. 

Conclusion

While power plays second fiddle to innovations in computational hardware and increasingly sophisticated AI workloads, it's a fundamental part of the data center. And as with other elements in the data center, it's rapidly evolving. To build a data center that can meet the demands of tomorrow's workloads, data center developers and operators should reconsider their power infrastructure, top to bottom. 

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