Data Plant? or Power Center? Changing Grid Spawns Hybrids

July 19, 2018

I excerpted the video above from Facebook in this month’s Yale vid, in the post above.

It’s an example of a very large movement of tech companies into the renewable space – they need high quality electricity for expanding data centers. They want to go 100 percent renewable. They’re buying wind and solar power to fill the demand.

In addition, many are purchasing large battery storage systems to balance out the variable renewable energy.

There’s a next step, it turns out.

Scientific American:

The cutting edge in American efforts to green the power sector can be found in a shipping container sitting in the parking lot of a sprawling Microsoft Corp. data center in southern Virginia.

A team of engineers assembled here to conduct a series of tests to simulate the interaction between a data center and a grid operator. Their question: Can extensive battery systems installed at data centers like this one be used to help grid operators smooth out the small spikes and drops in electric demand that occur throughout the day?

It’s technical, tedious work, but the implications for the electric system are sweeping. If they succeed, power companies might not need to build new natural gas power plants. Directly powering data centers with the wind and sun becomes a real possibility. Microsoft engineers even talk about reimagining the way electricity is bought and sold.

“In the future, you don’t have a data center or a power plant. It’s something in the middle. A data plant, for example,” said Sean James, Microsoft director of energy research. “Where this thing isn’t just a load on the grid, it’s an asset on the grid. We’ve been doing a lot of calculations, working with partners to get it just right, but to see it actually going is a special moment for us.”

Technology companies have led a corporate rush into renewables in recent years, pioneering long-term contracts with wind and solar projects that essentially offset the emissions associated with their electricity consumption (Greenwire, April 20). But many firms, no longer content with merely offsetting their emissions, are moving on to the challenge of directly powering their operations with the wind and sun.

The big increases in electricity consumption are part of the reason technology firms have embraced renewables. Wind and solar offer firms two primary benefits: They help companies meet their sustainability goals while providing a hedge against fuel prices. Wind and solar lack fuel costs, meaning they offer electricity buyers long-term price certainty.

Microsoft’s battery project in Boydton is illustrative of how technology companies are finding new ways to green the grid. Data centers like this one are equipped with extensive battery systems to back up your photos, videos and favorite web-based news outlets in the event the power goes out. But most of the time they sit around gathering dust.

The essential question for Microsoft is whether a data center’s batteries can still perform their backup function while also providing a service for the grid.

Brandon Middaugh, a senior program manager for distributed energy at Microsoft, likens the system to a stranded asset, a valuable resource that is infrequently used. The company’s effort represents an attempt to get more value out of its investment while furthering its clean energy goals, she said.

“It’s about looking at all the backup resources that we’re already installing at data centers here and around the world and saying, ’What could we do to make these underutilized assets more of a resource for the grid and specifically a resource that could help with renewable resource integration and balancing?’” she said.

Batteries are an appealing option for the power sector because of the flexibility they provide. Unlike a natural gas peaker plant, which can take minutes to dispatch and often run on idle in order to better meet short-term spikes in demand, a battery can dispatch power instantaneously. That makes them potentially valuable resources to help smooth out sudden spikes or drops in power supplies.

It is also a key piece of the puzzle for bringing more renewables online. If, say, a cloud moves over a solar facility, a battery can be dispatched quickly to patch the shortfall in electricity production.

But although the cost of batteries has fallen in recent years, they still remain prohibitively expensive, especially if a company is using them for the sole purpose of meeting short-term fluctuations in power.

That’s why the allure of data center batteries is so strong.

“I think what it does is provide a stable grid as more clean energy comes online,” said Kyle Harrison, who tracks corporate energy strategy at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “These companies are showing they have an in-depth understanding of energy markets, but they want to help decarbonize the grid while maintaining resiliency, security and all those other factors.”

There are other tangible economic benefits for Microsoft. Researchers at the University of Washington studied a Microsoft data center to see whether its battery system could be used for dual purposes like data center backup and grid services.

They concluded the company could cut its annual electric bill by nearly 11 percent by reducing energy use at times of peak demand and, at the same time, gain a new revenue stream by offering services to the grid.

UPS Battery Center:

E&E News reporter Benjamin Storrow reports a Microsoft engineering team has gathered around a shipping container at their data center. They are testing whether the extensive battery systems could successfully interact with the grid.

They want to know could data centers’ giant batteries smooth small demand spikes and drops that are a regular occurrence on grids. Their job is tedious and exacting, Benjamin Storrow confirms. However, the earth would be a little greener if we gradually phased out gas peaking plants. If we could bring the wind and sun into play that would really be something.

“In the future, you don’t have a data center or a power plant. It’s something in the middle. A data plant, for example,” said Sean James, Microsoft director of energy research. “Where this thing isn’t just a load on the grid, it’s an asset on the grid.

“We’ve been doing a lot of calculations,” he continues, “working with partners to get it just right, but to see it actually going is a special moment for us.” Tech firms like Amazon and Microsoft are already building wind and solar farms to reinforce their energy integrity. There is big money riding on this. Grid energy is expensive at the quantities they buy.

5 Responses to “Data Plant? or Power Center? Changing Grid Spawns Hybrids”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    When push comes to shove, who gets the power: The data center or the general grid?

    In any case, the mere fact of data centers committing to renewable power, by increasing the volume of the RE market, has the knock-on effect of bringing down costs and improving technology more quickly.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    Dare I admit that when I see the data center for Facebook I have fantasies of blowing it up real real really good? Second only to the headquarters of Faux News.

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