The energy system contribution of data centres comes from their UPS reserves. UPS stands for uninterrupted power supply, and its purpose is to ensure that the servers at the data centre continue receiving electricity even if there is a power outage. Since power outages are quite uncommon in countries with the level of infrastructure that attracts data centre operators, these power reserves are seldom needed and mostly lie idle.
This is where the opportunities can be found. If the UPSs are connected to the grid, they can be used for balancing purposes when they are not needed by the data centre. Here, too, they act as reserves and are used only when there is a dip in frequency, not continuously. Using the UPSs this way causes no inconvenience to the data centre’s servers – they continue getting power and the stored data remains well secured. For the data centre, selling this reserve capacity turns the UPSs from an unavoidable cost into a revenue-generating asset.
Making use of data centre UPSs is a mutually beneficial approach. Data centre operators get paid for having their UPSs in reserve. Even if they are not needed within a given time frame, the operators get their fee for having them on stand-by. An aggregator, such as Fortum Spring, contracts the reserve capacity. Our team has created a cloud-based service platform for connecting devices and combining their capacity, which it then sells to grid operators or other parties, such as distribution network operators or the electricity market.
There are a few different demand-response markets in the Nordic countries. The one I find most interesting is FFR, the fast frequency market, which was opened in 2020. Fast frequency reserve is a fairly new market product, and we were involved in piloting it. It is used for controlling the frequency dips in small inertia situations of the power grid. The market is run by Nordic transmission system operators, which have traditionally been quite development-oriented and keen to explore new innovations. The Nordic energy system is inherently quite flexible, thanks to large amounts of hydropower, but I am glad that the grid companies are still pursuing new solutions to further improve flexibility.
Another way in which data centres contribute to the energy system is by providing heat. Running vast numbers of servers produces waste heat, which can be collected and fed into a district heating or local grid. This means making use of a resource that would otherwise dissipate into air or water and, at the same time, providing heat that would otherwise have to be produced by another means, such as fossil fuels.
Tapping into unused potential
Traditionally, data centres have been viewed as a strain on the energy system rather than as an asset or opportunity. However, they have excellent potential in frequency regulation, demand-side flexibility, and heat production. They use electricity and produce data processing capacity while generating heat – both end products that are vital for society.
We at Fortum Spring are actively seeking new partnerships and customers. We also welcome discussions with equipment manufacturers and data centre operators beyond the Nordics in Northern Europe, Ireland, and the UK. There are still some issues concerning market regulation that we would like to see improved in order to expand our operations, though. Furthermore, the equipment used in data centres in these areas is not always quite compatible for feeding electricity into the grid. However, based on my own experience, I feel confident in saying that technological advancement never stops, and the adoption of more suitable batteries is surely to happen in the future.
It is a simple fact that the volume of data and the need for storing it is growing exponentially, so the role of data centres will only increase in the future. Since we need them to run our increasingly digital societies, why not make the best use of the side streams they offer?