Distributed energy could have a vital role to play in tackling an impending energy crisis, a leading energy expert claims. Speaking at the Data Centre Summit, London, and Data Centres North, Russell Park, British Gas solutions manager, warned that the UK Government’s policy to close all coal-fired power stations by 2025, combined with the retirement of the UK’s ageing nuclear fleet and growing electricity demand, will leave the UK facing an energy supply gap. Park pointed out that while the use of renewables, such as solar and wind power, will increase in the future, these sources are intermittent. To tackle fears that the ‘lights will go out’, he urged data centres to ‘plug the gap in supply’.
“The options are to carry on and pay the Government’s extra tariff, or switch your generation assets off or on,” said Park. “Most data centres have access to backup generators. Through a relatively simple process, they can supply the National Grid.”
There are incentives for data centres to play their part, according to Park: “If you move to demand side response, you can trade additional revenues. There are lots of variables, but typically you can expect a minimum of around £180,000 net benefit per year. We are working hard to increase the capacity of generation. We believe this is the future for the UK and Europe and are investing £700m by 2020 in distributed energy. As part of this, we are investing in customers’ assets when they need it.”
Income from energy assets can be generated in a number of ways, including ‘balancing reserve’. A 2-3MW generator that is dormant most of the year can be made available and switched off and on when required. National Grid are incentivising smaller energy generators to make these assets available. Another strategy is peak avoidance. Balancing markets also provide a revenue opportunity for data centres. Short Term Operating Reserve (STOR) is needed to keep the electricity system in balance and data centres can be paid to provide a reserve of energy for National Grid to call on when UK electricity demand outstrips supply. National Grid requires a minimum of 3MW to participate in the programme.
Frequency response is an increasingly important market to reduce demand within seconds of a sudden loss of electricity supply. On occasions when lots of electricity is lost very quickly, network frequency drops below tolerance levels. Normal service resumes in around half an hour when the lost supply returns or is replaced, but for that period, the system is under extreme stress. Such events typically occur around 10 times per year and a fast responding reserve is needed for these rare events. National Grid pays a high price to provide this service. When making generators available for balancing frequency response, speed is also important, so British Gas is now developing assets such as battery storage which is available in seconds rather than minutes. There is an enhanced incentive to have these facilities available.
He said that there is a tendency to be ‘naturally protective’ of assets, particularly in data centres, where operation is mission critical. However, backup generators are rarely used as an emergency electricity supply and are often left idle outside of maintenance programmes. The flexibility of backup generators makes these assets ideal for demand side response and British Gas can remotely optimise the generator through its energy control centre. The demand side response programme provides a ‘zero cost’ way to perform on-load testing and improve a site’s energy resilience.
“There are some data centres already participating, but it is early days,” said Park. “The Hinkley Point nuclear power station will represent 7% of the National Grid when it is finally built, but it is a long way off and we will need a lot of Hinkley Points…We must do something; every business has a duty to consider this – we all have a role to play.”