Data centers and power grid transformation

Data centers, know your power grid

As we all know the quality and availability of the data center stands or falls with the quality and availability of the power supply to the data center. So data centers are very much depending on the quality and capacity of the power grid, for their daily operations as well for their growth potential.

With a scenario of moderate energy efficiency efforts the energy consumption of EU data centers in 2015 is roughly estimated on 105 TWh coming from a 40 TWh in 2006.

At the same time the European Union is transforming its power grid. That is because the European Union defined some ambitious energy targets for 2020 that aims at:

  • 20% reduction of energy usage
  • 20% share of renewable energy and a
  • 20% reduction on greenhouse gas emission

The EU 20-20-20 goals makes it necessary to update the current power grid and to use a larger percentage of renewable energy. On top of this, the EU has an aging power plant fleet. For the carbon based power plants around 60% are in their second half of their life cycle. And in the next ten years decommissioning of 24% of the EU nuclear power, can be expected. (see this blog entry )

Also several ‘incidents’ at nuclear power plants (Japan, France, Belgium) caused a shift in energy policies of several EU countries and has sent shock waves through the energy industry. Germany’s government announced in 2011 that it would phase out all nuclear power plants by 2022. Recently the government in France reaffirmed to cut reliance on nuclear energy from more than 75 percent to 50 percent by shutting 24 reactors by 2025 (see this article).

Until recently experts were expecting that the usage of variable renewable energy sources would require complex control, coordination and power-balancing mechanisms. Instead of a small number of large power plants in the old power grid, the new power grid will link a larger number of small, decentralized power plants with the consumers. In other words power lines will no longer form star-like networks and linking a few large power plants to nearby consumers, but will look more like a meshed network linking many generators with the consumers. There is a fear that such a dense power grid, with intermittent energy sources, would be vulnerable to power outages because it is much harder to synchronize the many generators and machines of consumers.

A good example of this discussion are the recent power grid developments in Germany.

Renewable energy may stabilise the power grid

In contrast of this, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen have now discovered in model simulations that whereas more decentralized grids become more robust to topological failures they simultaneously become more sensitive to dynamical perturbations.

The simulations indicate that decentralized grids are much more robust when single lines are cut (such as the 2006 power outage around Europe, caused by the shutting down of a single line in Northern Germany). A dense grid can compensate more easily, take the extra load, for a line outage.

The transformation of the current power grid raise the question of where to add new connection lines to the already existing grid. The computer model showed that adding new links may not only promote but also destroy synchrony. Adding new lines can hinder power transmission. This counter-intuitive phenomenon is known as Braess’s paradox. It shows that careful consideration should be given to which nodes can be linked without risk.

The expansion of renewable energy still holds challenges for the stability of the grid. The simulation model showed that a highly decentralized grid is more vulnerable to strong fluctuations in consumption. Large power plants can buffer these fluctuations in demand more easily than small ones, The grid can tap into these spinning reserves at short notice to cover supply gaps, an option which is not available in the case of renewable energy sources.

The Network Dynamics Group based in Göttingen currently starts collaborating with network operators to ensure that their findings can be put to practical use. In the meantime, the research group is improving the model. Their current focus is to integrate weather-related fluctuations in renewable energy sources into their simulations.

Data centers beware of the Power Grid

As we all know the quality and availability of the data center stands or falls with the quality and availability of the power delivered by the power grid to the data center. But the current power grid is under pressure. Although suitable for the last century, the current power grid cannot handle the new demands.

The EU has developed an ambitious energy policy scheme, also known as ‘20-20-20’, that aims at:

  • 20% reduction of energy usage,
  • 20% share renewable energy and a
  • 20% reduction on greenhouse gas emission in 2020

This is the political and legislative framework that shapes the electricity market in Europe.

The EU 20-20-20 goals in combination with the intermittent nature of the renewable energy sources, and the aging power plant fleet and power grid of the EU makes it necessary to update the current power grid to a new and smart power grid. Therefore the power and utility sector will require a substantial amount of investment during the next 15 years to make this transformation possible.

A good example of this are the recent developments in Germany. Following the accident in Fukushima, Germany’s government announced in 2011 that it would phase out all nuclear power plants by 2022. That is about 23% of their power production capacity. At the same time, in 2011, there where periods that the German windmills generated so much power that power generators were paying consumers to buy their electricity for a short time otherwise they had to shut off base load power plants. This phenomenon is known as ‘negative electricity prices’. In 2012 the German solar power plants even produced a world record with 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour, this met with nearly 50 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. This flood of renewable energy influence the profitability of the traditional power plants and also put pressure on the necessary investments in the adaption and replacement of an aging conventional power plant fleet.

Several stakeholders of the power supply chain; power plant owners, transmission system operators and large customers (enterprises) have expressed their worries about recent developments and the increasing risk of unstable power supply.

Recently the four German transmission system operators (TSOs) 50Hertz, Amprion, TenneT TSO,  and TransnetBW  published for the first time a report about the transformation of the current power grid to a new smart power grid. Using different development scenarios this plan, NEP 2012, points to the new needs for electricity transmission between the start and end points in the power grid. The current draft of the network development plan, NEP 2012, is open for public consultation until 10 July 2012.

According to this report the most important factors that shape the future energy infrastructure are:

1) Consumers distance: wind will continue to be the most important energy sources, renewables. Most of the local wind energy is produced by many wind turbines on land and at sea in the north. Large amounts of energy must be transported from there to the present and future consumption centers in central and southern Germany. The current electricity grids are not designed  for the transmission of large amounts of electricity over such long distances along the north-south axis.

2) Decentralization and diversity: Creating Strong, centralized systems (which include wind farms and large solar systems are), are complemented by a large number and variety of different small and medium-energy producers in Germany. These include, for example, solar energy systems, biogas plants on farms, the turbines on the plains and hills, and many more, including new and innovative energy sources.

3) Volatility: Unlike fossil and nuclear energy sources that allow a steady flow of energy and transport into the power grid, the electricity generation by alternative energy sources depends on the weather and so they are sometimes extremely volatile. The volatility of energy is constantly increasing and will likely continue to be the rule rather than exception. Striking a balance between production and consumption and thus maintain the network stability in the future, the number of producers, consumers, and storage must be actively and intelligently integrated in the network operation.

The TSOs want to pursue these new technology developments and integrate them into any new NEP. According to them the energy landscape of tomorrow will be more diverse and interconnected,  and it presents completely different demands to power grids. The TSOs stating that the German power grid is considered one of the safest and most reliable worldwide. But presently the growing integration of renewable sources of energy and the increase in the fluctuating supply brings the networks to their capacity limits. This gives the risk of  network collapse or the shutdown of renewable energy.

The network expansion in Germany currently lags behind the expansion and usage of renewable energy sources. New energy sources will need new networks. The TSOs are emphasizing that the modernization and the need for adequate expansion of German power grids are a first step and prerequisite for the success of the energy transition, and thus key to the entering of the new era of renewable energy. Much work must be done so that the grids do not remain the oft-mentioned bottleneck of energy transition.

The core of the new transmission network are four DC-transmission corridors with a route length of approximately 2.100km and a transmission capacity in the North-South direction provided by 10 GW. The new building-lines for the AC power is about 1.700km. The estimated investment costs in the German transmission grid by 2022, depending of the chosen development scenario, vary  between the 19 and 23 billion euro.

Data Center stakeholders should closely watch the current Power Grid developments in Europe. If you are interested in this topic, have a look at the presentation on Power markets, Power prices and Data Centres in Europe given at Datacentres 2012 conference in Nice. Or read more about this in the report published by Broadgroup. And if you can read German you can find the NEP 2012 report here.

The resemblance between the Power Grid and the Data Center

At the Datacentres 2012 conference in Nice, there were some very interesting discussions about the interrelation and resemblance between the power grid and the data center.

Christian Belady started the conference with a keynote speech where he raised the question; Why are we separating the power generation from the data center?

Why do we generate power in a separate power plant and struggle to get this power by transmission and distribution networks to a separate data center where data is generated by computers?

Why don’t we instead bringing the data generation (computers) to the power plant and get rid of the transmission and distribution grid?

The business case for this transformation is based on difference in price for a power grid network  per kilometer and a glass fiber network per kilometer.

Belady was emphasizing to think out of the box and to question what is really necessary to run a data center. But Belady also stated to think about using ideas and concepts from other industries. He pointed at the resemblance between managing a power grid and managing a data center in terms of variable work load, capacity management, load peak shaving etc.

That is indeed a very interesting thought.

The rise of electricity consumption is spectacular. From the seventies onwards the worldwide growth is more than 200% . The growing dynamics in supply and demand of electric energy put a lot of pressure on the current power grid. For a power grid demand and supply of power must be the same, in equilibrium, else there is the risk that this infrastructure shuts down. Loss in transmission and the level of congestion on any particular part of the grid will influence the dispatch of the generated units of electricity. For a power grid the load or the required amount of electric power falls into three categories: base load, intermediate load and peak load. Base load refers to a relatively constant output of power plants over a period. In contrast, peak load refers to surges in electricity demand that occur at specific, usually predictable periods, such as evening peak load. Finally intermediate load refers to the fluctuating demand for electricity throughout the day.

Question is, how the current power grid must handle the new demands and new dynamics real-time?

But the same can be said about the data centers and networks or “IT grid”.

The rise of data consumption is spectacular. From the eighties onwards the worldwide growth has been exponential. The growing dynamics in supply and demand of data (cloud computing) put a lot of pressure on the current IT grid. For an IT grid demand and supply of power must be the same, in equilibrium, else there is the risk that this infrastructure shuts down (time outs because of latency). Loss in transmission and the level of congestion on any particular part of the IT grid will influence the dispatch of the generated units of data. For an IT grid we also can differentiate the load or the required amount of data processing into three categories: base load, intermediate load and peak load. Base load refers to a relatively constant output of data centers over a period. In contrast, peak load refers to surges in data demand that occur at specific, usually predictable periods, such as mid day peak load. Finally intermediate load refers to the fluctuating demand for data throughout the day.

Question is, how the current IT grid must handle the new demands and new dynamics real-time?

There is the issue in the data center in how to service, provide and to organize, in an (energy) efficient way, the base load, intermediate load and peak load. The importance of capacity management is growing just as the need for control and administration. As the data center industry relies increasingly on information to operate the data center system, two infrastructures must now be managed: not only the Data Center Infrastructure, but also the Information Infrastructure for control and coordination. This need can be found back in the rising interest in topics like data center automation, data center infrastructure management (DCIM), service orchestration and management. This is also the point where the data center industry can learn from the power industry who have dealt with this issues for almost a century and now are transforming the current power grid to a Smart Grid to deal with the new demands and new dynamics.

Power markets, Power prices and Data Centres in Europe

Based on a report I wrote for Broadgroup I was invited speaker at Data Centres 2012, a European data centre conference whose theme is “energizing the future of Information Technology delivery,” scheduled for May 23-24 in Nice, France.

Some thoughts and high lights from the report  ‘Power market, Power prices and data centres in Europe’  (which is available from BroadGroup) were shared in this presentation.

The conference included 100 speakers, three conference theatres, and five master classes. The attendance was more than 750 professionals from 30 different countries. The two-day event offered insight, learning, networking, marketing and business opportunities across data centre and cloud markets in Europe. To get an impression of this event have a look at the blog entries from Michael Manos with some impressions.

Outline of the given presentation ‘Power markets, Power prices and Data Centres in Europe’

The quality and availability of the data center stands or falls with the quality and availability of the power supply to the data center. Besides knowledge of the retail prices of electricity it is also necessary to have a good understanding of the current trends in electricity production and consumption. At the end data, centers have to compete with many other consumers to get access and supply of scarce energy sources. Therefore it is also important to have an overview about current developments and trends in the electricity supply chain and electricity infrastructure.

Key take aways …

Data Center stakeholders should closely watch the current Power Grid developments in Europe


Data Center operators must make Power or Electricity management as one of their core work processes.

Power markets, power prices and data centers 1

Power markets, power prices and data centers 2

As we all know the quality and availability of the data center stands or falls with the quality and availability of the power delivered by the power grid to the data center.

Power markets, power prices and data centers 3

Power markets, power prices and data centers 4

Power markets, power prices and data centers 5

Power markets, power prices and data centers 6

Power markets, power prices and data centers 8

Power markets, power prices and data centers 8

Power markets, power prices and data centers 9

Power markets, power prices and data centers 10

Power markets, power prices and data centers 11

The IEA’s estimates are that the amount of money required for the implementation of the necessary investments is close to 1900 billion euro!

Datacenter Dynamics Amsterdam 2011 grand final: sustainability and cloud computing

 This week I attended (and was chair of one of the tracks) of the DatacenterDynamics conference in Amsterdam. This year the conference program set up was along three themes, Design, Build & Operate, Outsourcing Decisions and IT Optimization.

During the day a wide range of cases and technologies were presented. And at the end of the day there was a grand final with a very interesting panel discussion led by John Abbott, founder & chief Analyst of the 451 Group and Harkeeret Singh (Thomson Ruters/Green Grid), Tom Dowdall (Greenpeace), Hans Timmerman (EMC/EuroCloud Netherlands) and Jan Wiersma  (Evo Switch/Data Center Pulse) as participants.

In the beginning some arguments were exchanged about how green cloud computing really is. Soon the focus shifted to a discussion about the relation between the electrical energy infrastructure and the IT infrastructure and how efficient it is to use mega data centers.

Currently data centers are constructed on the intersection of the electrical energy infrastructure and the network (data) infrastructure. The observation was made that based on technological developments, the principle of economy of scale and the current set up of the electrical energy infrastructure this leads to the building of mega data centers.

This development has also a downside, the example was given that for the city of Amsterdam 10% of the energy consumption is done by data centers, and in the vicinity of airport Schiphol/Amsterdam it is even 25%. The result of this is that there will be energy supply issues for the next decade for the Amsterdam region.

As a side step. In other parts of the world there are even certain critical locations, also known as Critical Areas for Transmission Congestion, were there is insufficient capacity to meet the demand at peak periods (DOE, “National Electric Transmission Congestion Study.”, 2006). And don’t forget that we also have to take into account that the energy loss in the power grid, that is from primary energy source to the actual delivery of electrical power at the data center, is almost 70% (around 67% power plant conversion loss and 8-10% transmission grid loss). Indirect this mega data centers are part of this 70% energy loss in the power grid.

The discussion about the developments in the data center industry at first followed the same line of reasoning as in the book “The Big Switch” by Nicholas Carr.

Carr makes a historical analysis to build the idea that the data centers / Internet is following the same developmental path as electric power did 100 years ago. At that time companies stopped generating their own power and plugged into the newly built electric grid that was fed with electric energy by huge generic power plants. The big switch is between today’s proprietary corporate data centers to what Carr calls the world wide computer, basically the cloud with some huge generic data centers that provides web services that will be as ubiquitous, networked and shared as electricity now is. This modern cloud computing infrastructure is following the same structure as the electricity infrastructure: the plant (data center), transmission network (Internet) and distribution networks (MAN, (W)LAN) to give process power and storage capacity to all kind of end-devices.

But where Carr stops using this analogy the panel went one step beyond. Here in the panel discussion the comparison was made with current developments in the electrical energy infrastructure: local power generation based on alternative energy sources such as wind and solar energy. Local power generation that, with improvements of the current technology, could even lead to local energy self sufficiency. Using this as an analogy another data center industry development, or next step or next phase, was envisioned.

Thus instead of relying only on centralized mega data centers another solution, another paradigm is possible in the nearby future that is much more focussing on an intelligent distributed network of localized micro data centers who are energy self sufficient.

For the current moment with the trend of consolidation of data centers to mega data centers, based on the thriving force of economy of scale, the emphasis should be made on data center efficiency and the usage of renewable energy. Although the panel revered to the Jevons paradox, increases in the efficiency of using a resource tends to increase the usage of that resource, the statement also was made that we should appreciate that every kilowatt that isn’t used also doesn’t have to be generated. Data center efficiency is not only about energy efficiency it is also about water usage, e-waste handling. The panel agreed that if you talk about efficiency, a holistic (not energy usage only), cradle to cradle approach should be used.

Apart from efficiency improvements, data center providers should also think about how they can reduce carbon emissions by powering data centers from low-carbon electricity sources, such as hydropower or wind energy. The panel discussed the ‘quality’ of the electrical energy that is being used in data centers. How to compare energy efficiency if this efficiency is reached by using nonrenewable energy resources? Currently most of the data centers providers don’t disclose what kind of energy resources they are using. According to the panel one of the issues is that at the current moment there are hardly independent resources about the composition of the electrical energy that is being delivered. It was stated that data center providers could take a much more pro active attitude in this issue by asking the power suppliers to give insight in there energy resource investment policy (renewable/nonrenewable) and take there answers into account when choosing a power supplier for their data centers.

All agreed that sustainability is an import issue for the data center industry. A pro active attitude of the data center industry in combination with a government that step up to support the sustainability initiatives of this industry (by creating the right incentives) can push and accelerate the power suppliers activities on sustainability and usage of renewable energy resources.

Greener IT Can Form a Solid Base For a Low-Carbon Society

Greening ITPrecisely a year a go we launched  the book Greening IT in print and online (free to download). And if I may say so, the book is still worth the effort of reading.

The book aims at promoting awareness of the potential of Greening IT, such as Smart Grid, Cloud Computing, Thin Clients and Greening Supply Chains. The chapter “Why Green IT is Hard – An Economic Perspective” is my contribution to this book. See Greening IT and read the following press release.

Press release Greening IT

Information Technology holds a great potential in making society greener. Information Technology will, if we use it wisely, lead the way to resource efficiency, energy savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions – taking us to the Low-Carbon Society.

The IT sector itself, responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, can get greener by focusing on energy efficiency and better technologies – we call this Green IT. Yet, IT also has the potential to reduce the remaining 98% of emissions from other sectors of the economy – by optimising resource use and saving energy etc. We call this the process of Greening IT. IT can provide the technological fixes we need to reduce a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors of society and obtain a rapid stabilisation of global emissions. There is no other sector where the opportunities for greenhouse gas emission reductions, through the services provided, holds such a potential as the IT industry”, says Adrian Sobotta, president of the Greening IT Initiative,   Founding Editor and author of the book.

In her foreword to the book, European Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard writes: “All sectors of the economy will need to contribute…, and it is clear that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have a key role to play. ICTs are increasingly recognised as important enablers of the low-carbon transition. They offer significant potential – much of it presently untapped – to mitigate our emissions. This book focuses on this fundamental role which ICTs play in the transition to a low-carbon society.”

The book aims at promoting awareness of the potential of Greening IT, such as Smart Grid, Cloud Computing and thin clients. It is the result of an internationally collaborative, non-profit making, Creative Commons-licensed effort – to promote greening IT.

There is no single perfect solution; Green IT is not a silver bullet. But already today, we have a number of solutions ready to do their part of the work in greening society. And enough proven solutions and implementations for us to argue not only that IT has gone green, but also that IT is a potent enabler of greenhouse gas emission reductions”, says Adrian Sobotta.

It is clear that the messages in the book put a lot of faith into technologies. Yet, technologies will not stand alone in this immense task that lies before us. “Technology will take us only so far. Changing human behaviour and consumption patterns is the only real solution in the longer-term perspective”, continues Adrian Sobotta. IT may support this task, by confronting us with our real-time consumption – for instance through Smart Grid and Smart Meters – thereby forcing some of us to realise our impact.

But technologies, such as Green Information Technologies, are not going to disperse themselves. Before betting on new technologies, we need to establish long-term security of investments. And the only way to do this is to have an agreed long-term set of policy decisions that create the right incentives to promote the development we need.

Data Centres Europe 2011 Nice

Data Centres Europe 2011Last week I attended Datacentres Europe 2011 that was held at 5-6 May 2011 in Acropolis, Nice, France and organized by Broadgroup. In its seventh edition, this European summit is for senior IT executives, analysts and vendors to network, discuss and learn about the latest developments in data centers. A great event, featuring 85 speakers with 550 delegates from about 30 countries.

In his opening address Aaron Davis of Schneider Electric stated that data centers are vital to tackling environmental issues. He said that “We must decouple our growth from our energy consumption.” Mr Davis also said that, by centralising data processing, data centres were increasing energy-efficiency. In coming years, technology had to decrease its carbon impact by a factor of 10 to offset the effects of population growth.  Aaron Davis ended with the statement that “Data centers will be a major part of the next stage of human evolution.”

In the presentations and the panel discussions there was much emphasis on the following topics:

  • Energy consumption, Sustainability and Green in the Data Center
  • Cloud computing and the impact on Data Centers
  • Data Center business models
  • How to build flexible, scalable and modular Data Centers

Like last year a lot of speakers made a note or remark in the site line that there are still gaps between IT and Site  infrastructure people and that it is mandatory that those groups are aligned.

Also some explicit remarks were made about the consequences of the enormous growth in mobile/handheld devices such as smart phones, tablets and the lot. Referring to the fact that Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a communication network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2). Therefore the value of these devices for people will continue to rise and therefore also the need and usage of these devices. The data center will act as the man in the middle, because all lines of the network comes together in the data center. This will give an enormous rise in the demand for data centers.

Some speakers made the observation of the mutual interest between data centers and the smart grid a topic that will certainly get more attention in nearby future.

Notable missing discussions were e-waste  and data center life cycle management a form of Energy Accounting, the approach of measuring and analyzing energy consumption of the total
life cycle from the data center conception, through design and manufacture, to service and disposal.

The first day of the conference also the European Commission Code Of Conduct Special Awards were announced by Paolo Bertoldi of the European Commission Directorate General Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability. The European Commission’s Code of Conduct (COC) on Data Centers Energy Efficiency is a voluntary code that organisations can endorse, committing them to implement measures to reduce energy consumption. The code is now established as the definitive industry practice for reducing carbon emissions by Data Centers and has been widely adopted with more than 122 endorsers.

As follow up the Data Centres Europe 2011 Awards will be hosted the second of June at the Gibson Hall in the City of London.