Our perpetual series of DCD>Talks continues at DCD>Connect Virginia, 2023. Emma Brookes meets Cummins’ executive director of power generation, Govindaraj Ramasamy to look at the challenges of power delivery during the ongoing explosion in data center demand.

Ramasamy warns that operators need to work to ensure that when it comes to keeping the lights on, fail-safes and redundancies aren’t victims of the need for increased capacity:

“What we're seeing is that the need for resiliency backup hours is not going away. The shape, and how we meet the requirement may evolve in the future, but it is not going away. We see ourselves as the line of last defense. If everything fails –- and it's not always from grid failures, it could be from some fault in the circuit somewhere that is causing the data centers to be taken off the grid – you need to have local reliable power.”

So what does he see as the direction of travel for reliable backup power?

“We expect that data center operators, working closely with the utility companies, would explore a little bit deeper in terms of the kind of on-site power generation assets being used in the case of peak times when some loads can be shared, and can be transferred to on-site power generation. We see that evolving a lot more, and that introduces a lot of complexities in terms of the permitting process, but also in terms of types of assets that you put on the ground.”

It’s a problem that isn’t going away, and the industry needs to start doing the groundwork now, as Ramasamy explains:

“Data centers now are no longer five megawatts 10 megawatts, these are big canvases that are coming up, and those require a different fuel distribution infrastructure. You can't just get away with actually having an LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) station or a CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) station. You need a pipeline to be able to support those kinds of data centers.”

One of the great hopes for cleaner energy is hydrogen. Exactly how hydrogen will be distributed and implemented is the subject of constant debate, especially in the context of long-term storage. Here, Ramasamy shares Cummins’ view on the matter:

“I think the technology of excess fuel cells has been in the market for a long time. We see the challenges more in terms of the availability of hydrogen, the cost of hydrogen, and the storage. If you look at data centers to store hydrogen, there are a lot of concerns about the space and the cost. We believe that if the grid evolves, so the availability of hydrogen improves where it is used in the broader economy, then technologies will make sure to provide the level of backup power or active standby to whatever use case we can imagine.”

On the inevitable topic of AI, Ramasamy is cognizant of a much-overlooked problem – training AI to handle power demands will mean things could get worse before they get better:

“On the demand side of things, AI is turbocharging demand across the world, and we're seeing that in real-time. On the other hand, AI loads are still evolving. Our experience is that the load averages out, and doesn't always operate at the max load of all the servers, but if you're training, we are seeing that the loads are maxed out, and the computers are cracking up which leads to a lot of fluctuations in terms of demand, power requirement and power consumption.”

Learn more about Cummins and the future of power provision to data centers with the full DCD>Talk, available here.