Keeping Texas online: what can we learn from the storm?

By Gavin Flynn
Gavin Flynn, Director at Linesight, looks at the challenges of Texas' Storm Uri, and at the lessons data centre operators need to learn...

This year’s unexpected storms and cold weather caused unprecedented challenges for the data centre industry in Texas. Although the residential sector experienced prolonged power outages and water supply interruptions, data centres managed to continue running throughout the storm — but not without difficulty. 

Throughout the state, power outages tested data centres’ backup generators longer than anyone expected, and supplies of gas and diesel were halted. Unfortunately, unpredictable weather is expected to become the norm — and not just for Texas. Data centre providers need to have strategies in place to prepare for the unexpected, especially as more storms arise.

With Texas experiencing a huge influx of businesses relocating their offices into the area, keeping data centres operational will be a top priority for the economy. Luckily, technological advancements have been made within the industry and steps are being taken to secure data centres, no matter the climate. 

With businesses relying on data centre infrastructure in the state, Texas needs to rebuild trust for businesses and the public after February’s winter storm. Alternative energy, technology and simple solutions can be employed to ensure that their data centres continue to power the economy.

Monitoring Warnings

There are some areas in the U.S. where natural disasters are commonplace. In the Midwest, we expect tornados. Florida and New Orleans have hurricane seasons. In California, home to Silicon Valley and an active data centre market, fault lines make the state more susceptible to earthquakes. In these areas, data centre providers know what to expect and can prepare accordingly. 

For example, a recent NTT data centre project in Santa Clara, CA, claims to be the first earthquake resistant data centre, and uses a new seismic isolation design to combat movement in the building in the event of a disaster. In these environments, data centre providers can prepare and have resources available to safeguard against common issues, such as extreme weather or temperatures.

In areas where the weather is less predictable, as seen when Texas experienced extreme cold and snowstorms, data centre providers need to ensure that they are monitoring warnings to be ready for possible disasters. The storms in Texas weren’t unexpected; they had been predicted for days. Unfortunately, since it was unusual for the area, many providers were unable to prepare adequately. 

Data centre managers need to monitor warnings for both internal issues and external forces that could create outages. Already, AI and machine learning are being leveraged to anticipate changes in the internal environment that could signal issues with the equipment or temperatures within the facilities. Monitoring the external environment could be a much simpler task, ensuring that they are up to date on weather warnings and the proper infrastructure is in place to keep everything running in case of outages. These tools can help data centres improve output and efficiency while anticipating customer needs.

Using Sustainable Sources

Diesel-powered generators are used to keep data centres online in case of power outages, but many providers only prepare for a few hours or days of backup power. 

Due to the length of the storm, road closures and power outages, getting gas to the backup generators in Texas was difficult. It also isn’t a sustainable option — something that clients are increasingly looking for from their data centre providers. 

Switching to natural gas to power data centres and backup generators is a quick solution to helping with sustainability goals. Carbon capture can also be implemented in data centres to offset the output of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But there are other sustainable options available for data centres that may also help them become less susceptible to outages. 

Alternative energy sources are already being used in data centres across the U.S. as a primary energy source, for flex power during operational peaks and as a backup power source. Many providers are boasting solar panel farms alongside their facilities to offer sustainable and renewable power sources. Wind farms are another option gaining popularity, especially in southern states. 

Alternative energy sources also provide data centres with the flexibility of not being reliant on current electricity infrastructure, meaning they can be built in more remote locations. In Texas, this would help them to be less susceptible to power outages that affect the state electricity infrastructure. Used alongside generators, diesel and natural gas can be used to provide the required redundancies, but new renewable solutions are also being investigated to challenge the need for backup systems.

Hydrogen is also being explored as an option to replace diesel and gas backup generators in data centres. Currently, hydrogen fuel cells require a large upfront investment from providers, with clear benefits to moving in this direction. If powered by renewable energy sources — such as hydro, wind and solar — hydrogen can store extra energy that has been generated, allowing it to be used during down times or as an alternative during peak power times. Currently, there are space constraints on campuses that make it difficult to introduce hydrogen in place of generators, but as interest in this source grows, so too will advancements. 

Preparing for the Unexpected

Although data centre facilities and processes are designed to stay online and function despite changes to weather or environment, the winter storms in Texas tested even the largest providers. As our environment rapidly changes, these uncertain weather patterns are going to impact businesses and providers throughout the U.S. 

Going forward, data centres across Texas need to use technology and alternative energy sources to become self-sufficient and de-risk their operations, allowing them to rely on their own generated power rather than state infrastructure. In order for Texas to continue being a trusted location for data centres, alternative energy sources and technology need to be explored to reduce the risks associated with operating in the area.

Gavin Flynn is a Director (US-Central Region) at Linesight, a professional consultancy firm providing management support and strategic advice to the global construction industry. A native of Dublin, Ireland, he is now based in one of Linesight’s newest offices in Dallas, Texas. Gavin is a Commercial and Program Management consultant with over 13 years of professional experience in construction cost management with particular expertise in the Mission Critical sector.


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