EirGrid consultation: opportunities and responsibilities

Marc Garner, Schneider Electric
Marc Garner, Schneider Electric

The consultation on Ireland’s energy future is an opportunity to contribute, and transform, for the data centre sector

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8 June 2021 | 0

In association with Schneider Electric

Ireland’s energy future is going to be very different to the current landscape. A host of new influences will mean a completely new approach is required. Increased demand to meet a growing, developing economy, new demands from electrification of areas such as transport, the adoption of smart grids to handle two-way energy flows, as well as much needed new rounds of investment mean the future is not just complex, but will require insights from multiple sources.

In an effort to find a way forward, the national energy grid operator, EirGrid, created a report entitled Shaping Our Energy Future, on which it is seeking feedback in a consultation process. The report details innovative approaches to developing the grid to meet the ambitious 2030 renewable energy targets.

 

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The report was launched by Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan, who said: “In the coming decades we will be electrifying large parts of our economy, including our heating and transport systems, so building a grid that can handle a high level of renewables will be critical to our success. Shaping Our Electricity Future will go a long way towards Ireland’s goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and I look forward to seeing the outcome of the public consultation.”

Four approaches

At the heart of the report are four approaches to how the national energy grid of the future might develop. These are:

  1. Generation-led: Government policy would influence where renewable energy is generated – favouring locations where the grid is already strong
  2. Developer-led: In this approach, we continue to connect new sources of renewable electricity as requested in any location
  3. Technology-led: This approach uses technical solutions to make the grid more resilient so it can better handle the variable nature of renewable energy
  4. Demand-led: Government policy determines where large energy users locate in Ireland

In reality, the answer probably lies in a combination of at least two of these approaches. Any future grid will have to be heavily technologically orchestrated, to cope with the variability of renewable energy sources (RES), as well as demand monitoring and management, micro-generation and core generation management.

However, wind power, Ireland’s most abundant renewable energy source (RES), is not available everywhere, and so siting of some new generation capacity will have to be in areas not currently used. Also, offshore, and particularly floating, wind generation capacity is growing and is likely to feature increasingly in future energy plans.

Furthermore, new legislative and regulatory frameworks will be needed to facilitate at least some of these developments.

In combining several of these approaches, Ireland can not only achieve its ambitions of 70% RES by 2030, and net-zero carbon by 2050, but with the help of the expanding data centre sector, it can become a centre for best practice, providing a leading example for other countries around the world.

Data centres can not only support these ambitions but can also be a driver of adoption and a key element of the much-needed infrastructure.

Issues to address

In order to fulfil this role, data centre owners and operators need to address several key issues.

Firstly, data centres currently rely heavily on diesel fuel for on-site generation. Mostly employed as back-up, or emergency supplemental capacity, diesel-powered generators are high emission sources that need to be removed.

Alternatives such as biogas, bio ethanol and fuel cell technology, combined with alternative generation technologies, can significantly reduce the emissions created when using onsite generation. Moreover, such energy capacity from low or no-carbon methods could be fed back to the grid when required, providing a stabilising influence for future mixed generation efforts.

The development of RES, especially wind, has been driven by demand from users such as data centres. However, rather than just create demand, some operators have gone further and supported development of new RES capacity.

One such example is Amazon’s funding of a 23.2MW wind farm in Cork which will support its €350 million facility in Drogheda. This is to be welcomed, as it sets an important precedent for other operators and the industry as whole. It goes a long way towards allaying fears that the expected data centre demand will consume the bulk of RES in the future, and potentially driving demand for less emissions friendly sources among other consumers.

Once available, much RES is procured through power purchase agreements (PPA). PPA are not new in the Irish market, but there is work to be done in ensuring that agreements meet the needs of corporate and industrial (C&I) users. According to Accenture, greater flexibility is needed between generators and C&I users to ensure the needs of both are met in terms of pricing, duration of agreements and the management of associated risks.

Distributed resources

However, as Ireland moves towards its 70% RES balance in 2030, more will be needed to support grid development and management. New technologies being developed by various manufacturers will see the vast battery infrastructure held by data centres playing a key role in facilitating a RES dominated supply.

The battery infrastructure on which data centres rely as an uninterruptable power source is being enabled to provide a balancing effect for RES. Put simply, data centres, and other large energy consumers, will soon be able to store surplus power and feed it back to the grid when required.

Collectively, this comes under the term distributed energy resources (DER) and is a vital function for any grid that relies heavily on RES, and would have to be built out by the grid operator in any case. Data centres and other major consumers, through regular equipment upgrade cycles, can implement these emerging technologies and play a key role in enabling RES implementation and new capacity. Additionally, microgrid technology will allow on-site generation to supply capacity back to the grid, providing opportunities for grid and data centre  operators.

Physical impacts

There is no getting away from the fact that data centres have a large physical footprint. New work with various groups such as Host In Ireland, has seen designs emerge that encourage wildlife and pollinators. Vertical and horizontal surfaces can be planted with indigenous species to provide both food and habitats for bird and insects. Open spaces can be rewilded, providing water habitats too.

These techniques, combined with reduced water consumption, not only reduce the overall impact on the immediate environment, but can contribute significantly to biodiversity in the area.

Processing power

Finally, data centres will be key hubs of data storage and processing for the vast amounts of information that will generated by the new smart grid technologies. Edge computing will be a vital part of the new energy infrastructure. For example, a remote wind farm will generate a large amount of data on performance, energy flows, weather conditions, environmental monitoring.

An edge computing approach would see initial data processing happening on site, before a reduced data set is sent to a central processing facility, such as a data centre, where it can be fully analysed and acted upon. Data centres, and their associated communications infrastructure, can ensure that only what is need can be done on site before providing the capacity necessary to fully process the data set to derive the intelligence to inform management and planning systems.

Improvement and engagement

What’s clear is that the EirGrid consultation process is an important opportunity for data centre sector stakeholders to contribute to a clean energy future for Ireland. It is also an opportunity to make Ireland an example for other countries, large and small, in integrating the data centre sector with a modern, net-zero carbon energy system.

However, in contributing experience, insight and intelligence to the consultation process, the data centre sector also has work to do to improve its own performance, integrate more fully with the environment, and ensure that its own development aligns with the goals of the society in which it resides.

Marc Garner is VP, secure power division, Schneider Electric UK & Ireland



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