Duo of data center dilemmas: emissions and skills shortages

Danel Turk, global segment leader for data centers at ABB, answers our questions on the big dilemmas facing data center operators this year.

What are the top challenges facing data center operators in 2023?

Sustainability and uptime are arguably the two biggest challenges facing data centers this year. A drive for lower-emission data centers originates at both the consumer and corporate level, as customers seek green alternatives while companies must meet environmental targets and regulations.

Meanwhile, according to The Uptime Institute, half of the industry’s engineers will retire by 2025, yet demand for new staff still grows. Data center operators can face these two challenges with two solutions – battery energy storage systems (BESS) and increased digitalization.

Why is battery energy storage now viable at large scale?

Decreasing lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery prices now mean that it's possible to use BESS at a larger scale than before. Cell prices are about 5 times less per kilowatt-hour (kWh) since 2013, thanks to developments in electric vehicle technology. Though, the prices may remain stable or increase marginally for the next few years. So, it makes business sense to invest now.

With current cell prices and the new market for frequency regulation market, load shedding, and other ancillary services, we are seeing the payback period reduce.

BESS enables data centers to delay the start-up time of generators and maximize installed renewable energy resources. This helps data centers get closer to their zero-carbon footprint targets and comply with tightening regulations.

What are the other benefits of BESS?

Another important factor is that data centers also consume grid capacity. This can limit the amount of power available to homes and businesses, leading to political pressure on data center operators.

The data center can use a BESS to overcome this with load shifting to combat grid capacity bottlenecks. This facilitates negotiation with utilities - especially in countries, like the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands, where grid capacity may be limited. It also helps buffer the intermittent energy from renewable sources like wind and solar. Data centers can even generate additional revenue from the flexibility markets if they participate in frequency response.

Another way high-capacity data centers can negotiate with governments more easily is by being modular. Building up a data center in 10MW blocks over a number of years is much easier to plan, implement, and permit than immediately installing 100MW of capacity. You can then increase demand as more customers are onboarded. This avoids wasted capacity and optimizes your revenue stream.

Energy storage also enables supply of power back to the grid, helping to maintain grid frequency to serve the wider community. In fact, in certain countries, new regulations demand new data centers to have BESS for this exact reason.

Due to the need for power continuity, many data centers have spare battery capacity available. Operators can play a part in the energy transition by making it available to support integration of renewables.

What else can digitalization do for data centers?

BESS are becoming more digitalized. Modern energy management systems can look at how batteries load and unload to ensure they always have sufficient available capacity to support critical loads.

Digital technology is making it easier for operators to service their equipment. Modern electrical equipment can connect to the cloud to give real-time data to help analyze, optimize, and economize.

Digital solutions, such as cloud-connected smart sensors placed on fan motors, help identify potential issues in advance to prevent costly unplanned downtime. This enables operators to shift from planned to condition-based maintenance, reducing the costs involved in reactive maintenance.

Software updates can be added digitally through the cloud without any physical input from an operator.

Digital solutions can also reduce emissions by monitoring and analyzing the energy usage of motors that power fans and pumps. Operators can then act on this insight to increase the system’s energy efficiency.

What does digitalization have to do with the skills shortage?

The skills shortage facing the data center sector has been well-documented. One way of combatting this challenge is by using digital technology to help novice engineers and technicians to carry out tasks on complex, unfamiliar equipment.

One solution is ABB CLOSER, which provides operators with first-level support through augmented reality (AR). When facing a critical issue, digging through manuals can be difficult and time-consuming. AR support allows for easily digestible troubleshooting. An operator can simply take out their smartphone and view instructions overlayed onto the real equipment.

If further assistance is needed, then second-level support can be provided through additional technical support. Viewing through the same operator’s smartphone, a remote operator can provide additional guidance and overlay their own on-screen annotations.

This means that issues can be overcome, even when experienced team members are not available.

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