BCS Breakfast Club serves up net zero debate

The latest BCS Breakfast Club meeting was held in conjunction with AVK-SEG at The Ned in the City of London this month.

The title of the session was ‘How grid constrained data centres can be the answer to net zero’ and there was a lively debate from our participants which include leading industry investors, operators, designers and consultants. Topics discussed included whether the data centre industry can actually become a hero rather than a perceived power-hungry villain; the cost viability of green power; and the need to find an answer to the power challenges or risk more regulation being imposed. James Carmillet, Director of Cost Management at BCS expands:

Whenever there are any discussions around datacentres the topic of power availability is never far away, swiftly followed up by debates around sustainability and renewable energy. There is no doubt these are currently the biggest challenges organisations are facing and so it seemed a fitting subject for our latest BCS Breakfast Club.

The National Grid

It was universally agreed that the industry cannot rely on the National Grid to meet the increasing demand for power in the UK, despite the role of the datacentre in society being critical in the global future of society and its ongoing digital transformation. Discussions turned to current and future initiatives that the industry is assessing.

Relocation

It was perhaps unsurprising that a number of our Club participants were looking to find alternative locations that would previously have been unappealing to relocate or invest in. It is no longer a matter of finding a location with power but more about bringing power to a suitable location. There was agreement that the market had finally accepted that this was the way forward to mitigate National Grid constraints, with the drive being led by the hyperscalers with the Google site at Hertfordshire cited as a good example of this. One of our members discussed how his client has taken the decision to link together two datacentres that are 30 miles apart in order to get the necessary power!

Capacity

The issue of capacity, both current and future, was put forward by several Club participants raising the point that datacentres rarely run at full capacity, and quite often at less than half, yet the power is ‘held for them’ by the National Grid – effectively reserved. This is also the case for new development proposals that have the power they need ‘guaranteed’ despite construction potentially taking up to 10 years. The flip side to that is that with the investment costs being in the millions they must have confidence in the end power supply before starting.

A suggestion that the National Grid implement a ‘use it or lose it’ approach, similar to the clawback scheme in Germany, was mooted and received a mixed response as it was felt that this was, at best, a short-term fix, given the speed and growth of demand.

Addressing sustainability

However, whilst some of these initiatives may help mitigate the power availability issue – this does not necessarily address the need for sustainability. Concerns were raised by the Group that if the industry fails to abide by the current self-regulation approach – then regulation may be forced upon them by Government or local authorities that is less favourable. It was felt by most in the room that this is only a matter of time in some form.

There was some further discussion around individual initiatives including power storage for when excess power is not needed and how it can be used to create hydrogen. It was pointed out however that batteries in themselves aren’t green – they need a circular lifecycle which, in other countries, is driven by the automotive industry. There was a clear sentiment that whilst it is just too expensive to build a green facility today, it may be possible to futureproof for 5 years’ time when new developments in fuels and technical innovations come to fruition – although that is very dependent upon other industries. It was felt strongly that any move will be led by the hyperscalers or by customer demand.

Microgrids

Ben Pritchard of AVK-SEG then discussed the option of microgrids as a way of building-in both sustainability and resilience to power supplies, especially in areas where there can be a long wait for a grid connection. This entails a shift towards gas for primary power on-site but can also enable the data centre operator to be more imaginative when it comes to the power that drives their data centre.

He explained there are an increasing number of cases where the client has been waiting for years for a grid connection, leaving them with little choice but to explore workable and efficient alternatives. This approach can enable organisation to get their site up-and-running more quickly. This also repositions the industry as a hero that can actually help alleviate the broader power challenges by starting to help upgrade the existing power infrastructure and giving back power.

The group was interested in the cost analysis of this solution which for some felt that the investment might be too much currently for developers to take on, despite the obvious benefits of this ‘pay as you go’ solution including eliminating stranded assets and controlling carbon trade onsite. There was a discussion about possible favourable rates available for the buy back. It was noted that in Ireland there is now a requirement for any planning proposal to include an overgeneration of power.

Conclusion

The session concluded with an agreement of the challenges of balancing the needs of today, tomorrow and the future. This will not be just one solution, more like a war chest of initiatives that the industry can draw upon.

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