Operators have many options to consider.
An earlier piece in this series titled Data Centers as Utilities explored the idea that emergency backup power systems in data centers could be used to supply the utility with peak demand power when the grid is running near capacity and the data center’s emergency generators are not needed. But what about the idea that data centers generate their own power to provide less reliance on the grid? There are several approaches, particularly in the green energy space, that will be explored in future pieces. One that is readily available and may make sense for data centers to consider is called cogeneration or Combined Heat and Power, CHP for short.
CHP is not new, it has been used in more traditional industries for decades, primarily heavy industries with large energy needs, like steel and paper mills for example. Cogeneration for data centers has been in the news for quite some time but has had a relatively low adoption rate. After all, data center operators try to put their capital into IT infrastructure; the utility and facility sides are often looked at as necessary added cost. But with reports that grid capacity and reliability may not be able to address the growth or reliability needs of the industry, operators are taking a fresh look at options such as self generation. Low natural gas prices are also a factor since operators may be able to secure the fuel for their own operations more cheaply than through electric utilities.
As early as 2007 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency highlighted the potential of cogeneration in the future of data centers in a piece titled The Role of Distributed Generation and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) Systems in Data Centers.(Link to Source) With advances in the technology, changes in energy costs, and greater emphasis on grid capacity and reliability as it pertains to data centers, cogeneration has received a significant boost with sponsorship from companies such as IBM.
US sponsored report table showing various technology applications
all under the CHP or Cogeneration name. (Link to Source)
There are several approaches to cogeneration or CHP. The EPA report shows application of several technologies that fall under the sphere CHP or cogeneration. Recent installations include five gasoline engine powered turbines in a Beijing data center. According to one report, Powered by five of GE’s 3.34-megawatt (MW) cogeneration units, the 16.7-MW combined cooling and heating power plant (CCHP) will offer a total efficiency of up to 85 percent to minimize the data center’s energy costs. (Link to Source) The project is sponsored by the China National Petroleum Corporation and represents the trend toward distributed energy production in high usage industries. Ebay’s natural gas powered Salt Lake City plans to deploy a geothermal heat recovery system to product electricity from waste heat. (Link to Source)
Example of Micro Turbine or Fuel Cell CHP layout (Link to Source)
Data from projects at the University of Syracuse and University of Toledo data centers will be examined in a companion piece to demonstrate the potential RoI for CHP.
University of Toledo Natural Gas Fired Micro Turbine Cogeneration Plant. (Link to Source)