As an engineer by trade, I appreciate logic. When multiple factors add up to a positive result, it makes my day.
As the associate director of Kirby’s Transmission and Distribution Business Unit, I’ve been observing the spread of two significant concepts that I believe offer massive potential for a fruitful relationship and exciting results.
Firstly, the energy market is witnessing the rise of renewables. Geopolitical tensions including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, increasing pressure around emissions targets and advances in technology mean industry and wider lifestyles must be ‘greener’ than ever before.
Secondly, the Internet of Things is expanding into every aspect of the human experience. This will continue to create vast amounts of data which requires safe and responsible management and storage.
These two considerations add up to a need for the data hall community to embrace renewable energy as its ‘go to’ power source and harness its potential in order to future proof its needs.
As a senior member of the team at a leading engineering firm, I’ve had the chance to observe the realities facing customers whose business requires the use of data centers. Energy intensive by nature, these facilities are demanding from the start.
- Planning is a rigorous process for any party and requires close coordination with local authorities and contractors such as ourselves. The number of restrictions and conditions being attached to grid connections on proposed projects is increasingly restrictive.
- Building and commissioning requires expert input ‒ something Kirby provides for a wide range of customers.
- Ensuring energy security is paramount for these facilities and careful consideration must be given to which available option is the best for each project.
- Cost is a perennial concern with price inflation a particular issue at the moment.
Since joining Kirby Group Engineering, I’ve had the opportunity to develop a portfolio where most of my work involves connecting renewable energy to the national grid.
These have been projects involving everything from wind farms to solar farms to massive battery facilities being powered up for the first time. As much as developments to date have been impressive, I’m hugely excited about what the future holds given that the wind is now truly in the sails of renewable energy.
Why is this good news for the data hall community? Because the demand for more data storage comes right at the point where latest advances mean renewables can meet that demand and where policymakers need renewables to shoulder more of the energy burden.
A report from the International Energy Agency last year highlighted how some of the world’s biggest companies are leading the way in switching to renewable energy:
“Apple (2.8 TWh), Google (18.3 TWh) and Meta (9.4 TWh) purchased or generated enough renewable electricity to match 100 percent of their operational electricity consumption in 2021 (primarily in data centres)”.
However, it also highlighted a range of recommendations for various parties, including the private sector. One of these is that companies ‘increase the purchase and use of clean electricity and other clean energy technologies’. The authors say:
“In cooperation with electricity utilities, regulators and project developers, data center operators investing in renewable energy should identify projects that maximize benefits for the local grid and also reduce overall GHG emissions. This could also include the use of emerging clean energy technologies such as battery storage and green hydrogen to increase flexibility and contribute to system-wide decarbonization.”
This position on battery usage aligns with what I see in my role at Kirby. There is no question that battery technology has improved autonomy times. The concept and its implementation are getting close to being real alternatives to back up generators, which is a hot topic these days given the growing demand on the national grid.
I believe the key elements in creating a symbiotic relationship for the future are:
- Early contractor involvement (ECI): It’s more important than ever for data hall owners to engage in ECI to secure capability of project teams well in advance ‒ an approach we’ve seen work very successfully at Kirby.
- Partnership: Data hall owners could partner with renewable developers to help fund renewable developments. Where possible this could lead to power solutions for grid connection restrictions.
- Innovation: Data hall owners can work with contractors like Kirby to create a blended power certainty model using utility, gas, battery, wind and/or solar to ensure a variety of power solutions to match demand.
- Play the long game: Investment for the future should be directed towards renewables, the technological advancements that continually emerge and, crucially, towards the talent pool for each new solution, which will be limited at first and therefore in high demand.
Kirby Group Engineering has been adapting to changing technology since two Limerick brothers founded the company in the mid-1960s. Through careful investment, teamwork and planning we are now at the cutting edge of energy generation and usage in some of the most hi-tech industries. This experience is helping us chart the way forward for our valued customers’ needs and offers expert insight into how they can be addressed for the good of their business and the environment.
I have no doubt that the variety of renewable energy sources and advancements in clean energy have created real options for data hall developers and my team and I are looking forward to helping them design a future that works for them.
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