The changing landscape of data centre energy storage

By i3 Solutions
Experts at i3 Solutions break down the ever-evolving context surrounging data centre energy storage solutions.

Rapid technology advances are about to shift the landscape of energy storage options for data centre operators, whether running 250kW edge computing sites or 100MW hyperscale facilities.

From battery banks to gravity, for emergency back-up discharge in seconds or long-term discharge over days, weeks, and months; how energy is stored on-site and off-site has the potential to radically shake up data centre power chain design and operation. 

Solutions already in use include the increasingly common Lithium-ion batteries and the familiar kinetic flywheels. Less familiar may be gravity and liquid air energy storage. 

Here we offer a high level ‘What is..’ list of just some of the new and not so new technologies that are in use today and those that could find their way into the data centres of the future.

A more detailed technical analysis of data centre energy storage developments and emerging technologies will be available soon from i3 Solutions Group and EYP Mission Critical Facilities Inc. 

1. Lithium-ion Batteries 

Use of Li-ion has grown rapidly in data centres. As the Uptime Institute reported, this is mainly due to better energy density, rechargeability and management. It says “Li-ion energy storage is also regarded as a key component in renewable energy distribution, which is being adopted primarily to reduce carbon emissions.”

In addition to being more compact and lightweight than VRLA equivalents, advantages of Li-ion include energy capacity superiority, lower battery discharge through efficiency; extended lifespan; software optimisation enhancement and better remote management capability.

While questions remain about how sustainable Li-ion is when measured across its entire lifecycle, from sourcing raw materials to operation, disposal and recycling, the use of Li-ion battery banks in data centres of all sizes will continue to grow in the near term. 

The UTI says ‘there are now dozens of companies with Li-ion recycling services or technologies’, and it advises that ‘the best way for data centre operators to reduce the impact of Li-ion use will be to open a serious dialogue with suppliers.’

Meanwhile, large deployments are being planned. In late 2020 Google said: “In Belgium, we’ll soon install the first ever battery-based system for replacing generators at a hyperscale data center… batteries are multi-talented team players: when we’re not using them, they’ll be available as an asset that strengthens the broader electric grid.” 

In every sector, data centres already make use of tens of thousands of cells in battery systems – they may also need to renew thousands of them each year. 

Lithium is not the only battery technology option available. More sustainable battery types, with high enough energy densities, are being developed and some may start to compete as they become more cost-effective; these include flow batteries, zinc nickel and sodium-ion.

Using a less expensive and more common element than Lithium, Sodium-ion cells can be recharged in around a fifth of the time. The technology is cost-effective and sustainable, which includes using local bio-based energy sources in the battery supply chain. For example, researchers in Germany are exploring the use of local agricultural waste in sodium-ion energy storage chemistry. 

2. Kinetic 

Flywheels have been used to store energy for thousands of years. Today in data centres across the world, tens of thousands of flywheels are used for short term energy back-up power. 

Kinetic energy as the name suggests is energy generated via motion of an object. In classical mechanics, kinetic energy (KE) is equal to half of an object's mass multiplied by the velocity squared. Kinetic energy = ½ (mass)*(velocity)2.

A flywheel system stores energy mechanically in the form of kinetic energy by spinning a mass at high speed. Electrical or mechanical inputs spin the flywheel rotor and keep it spinning until called upon to release the stored energy. The amount of energy available and its duration are governed by the mass and speed of the flywheel.

Kinetic flywheels have seen success as energy storage components in the UPS power infrastructure. These systems indirectly provide electrical energy for the data centre from low and high-speed flywheels. 

3. Compressed Gas Storage 


Liquid Air Energy Storage

Liquid air energy storage (LAES) stores liquid air inside a tank which is then heated to its gaseous form, the gas is then used to rotate a turbine. Compressed gas systems have high reliability and a long-life span that can extend to over 30 years. 

LAES, also referred to as Cryogenic Energy Storage (CES), is a long duration, large scale energy storage technology that can be located at the point of demand. The working fluid is liquefied air or liquid nitrogen (~78% of air). LAES systems share performance characteristics with pumped hydro and can harness industrial low-grade waste heat/waste cold from co-located processes. Size extends from around 5MW to 100+MWs and, with capacity and energy being decoupled, the systems are well suited to long duration applications

Adiabatic Compressed Air Energy Storage

An Adiabatic Compressed Air Energy Storage (A-CAES) System is an energy storage system based on air compression and air storage in geological underground voids. During operation, the available electricity is used to compress air into a cavern at depths of hundreds of meters and at pressures up to 100 bar. The heat produced during the compression cycle is stored using Thermal Energy Storage (TES), while the air is pressed into underground caverns. When the stored energy is needed, this compressed air is used to generate power in a turbine while simultaneously recovering the heat from the thermal storage.

4. Pumped Hydro

Pumped-storage hydropower (PSH) is classified as a hydroelectric energy storage that is configured with two water reservoirs at different elevations which generates power as water passes through a turbine and draws power from the water pumps recharge to the upper reservoir. 

PHS are characterized by two different capabilities, the first is an open loop connected to ongoing hydrologic connection to a lake and the second is where two reservoirs are separated from an outside water body.

According to the US Government Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy “Pumped-storage currently accounts for 95% of all utility-scale energy storage in the United States.”       

5. Tidal Current 

This renewable energy source is powered by the natural tidal activity of the ocean tides and currents. The movement is a type of kinetic energy, and the tidal power surrounds gravitational hydropower that uses water movement to push a turbine and generate electricity. The submerged turbines are similar in design to miniature wind turbines.

Vortices, whirlpools and eddies are common occurrences on almost every global coastline and are predictable and powerful movements. Tidal data centre projects under development include SIMEC Atlantis Energy ambition for a facility in Caithness, Scotland, powered by 80MW of tidal power. Other projects are proposed for construction near the shoreline in locations such as Atlantis Singapore, Hammerfest Strom Norway, MCT Northern Ireland, and Open Hydro Orkney Islands. 

6. Gravity Storage

A Gravity storage scheme involves a piston with millions of metric tons raised by water pressure to store energy. As the piston descends this pushes water through a generator to deliver electricity.

Prototype gravity storage projects are being developed by firms such as Scotland based Gravitricity. It is building a prototype 250kW gravity power unit using towers. It says its units could deliver peak power outputs of between 1 and 20 MW, function for up to 50 years with no loss of performance and deliver full power in under one second. 

At the other end of the scale Gravity Storage concepts are based on the hydraulic lifting of a large rock mass using water pumps. The rock mass acquires potential energy and can release this energy when the water that is under pressure is discharged back through a turbine.

According to Heindl Energy Gravity Storage a rock mass with a diameter of 250 metres would result in a storage capacity of 8 GWh, which is comparable to the largest pumped storage power station in Goldisthal, Germany (8.4 GWh). It says gravity storage of this type is a concept with which unprecedentedly large quantities of power can be stored over long periods. The capacity of energy storage can be between 1 and 10 GWh, comparable to large Pumped Hydro Storage.

New Power Storage, New Power Chain

In the drive for Greenhouse Gas abatement and net zero operation, every energy storage option at source, grid, switch, battery, UPS and generator back up in data centres is changing. 

The i3 Solutions Group and EYP Mission Critical Facilities Inc., (EYP MCF) collaboration on greenhouse gas abatement has issued the first in a series of white papers providing detailed technical analysis for data centre operators as they move to carbon net-zero operations.

The new series of white papers aims to provide vendor-neutral decision-making support together with insights into the factors associated with the many technology options currently available to the sector for lowering the carbon footprint of data centre operations.

Titled: “Infrastructure Sustainability Options and Revenue Opportunities for Data Centres,” the first paper is available for download now, and covers how targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing revenue-generating opportunities are not mutually exclusive objectives.


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