Demand Response in data centres – what’s holding us back?

By Ed Ansett
Ed Ansett, Founder, i3 focuses on the changing data centre power game, and why power saving and achieving net zero is the foundation of all future builds.

No-one wants to be told that the party is over. But for a data centre space grown used to easy access to relatively cheap abundant power with little or no consideration for its source or carbon cost, this is one party that has well and truly ended.

So, what to do about data centre power? One option is to address the barriers to Demand Response. Demand response adoption in the data centre industry is patchy at best with few notable projects of any scale.

While there may have been many valid reasons to date for not considering demand response in the data centre, have we now reached a time when those barriers to participation no longer hold up? 

Among the most often expressed reasons for not doing demand response are: Lack of awareness of DR programs and policies; Unsuitable DR programs for data centres; DR not being a core business and complexities of implementation and operation

Source: Demand Response Opportunities for Data Centre Embedded Generation and Energy Storage Systems 

Don’t look now – what you don’t know can hurt you


Awareness levels of DR appear low. There are few publicised programs and even fewer commitments and policies from enterprises, commercial operators and hyperscalers.

Of course, awareness levels received a boost in late October when the Irish Government, worried about the possibility of winter power cuts, warned data centres to be prepared for losing the grid. The Irish Times reported: “Emergency measures may have to be introduced, and that the risk of power outages will increase.”

The Irish power regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) said in a report on threats to energy supply that there "is a mixed perspective" among data centre operators, and some "find it more difficult to be flexible". The CRU says data centres would be asked to locate close to power sources and to have on-site generation and battery storage so they could feed power to the national grid when supplies were low.

At around 25% Ireland’s thriving data centre sector draws a large percentage of the country’s power capacity. It is likely that other governments faced with capacity issues would look to data centres as potential sources of electricity.

Suits you sir – Are DR programs unsuitable for data centres?


Data centre operators who dismiss demand response as unsuitable may also be unaware of the different types of DR and the options they present. Not all data centres are suited to all programs. Among DR programs, Load Curtailment - or load shedding - is the simplest and most obvious type of DR participation. This is where the data centre disconnects from the grid and runs on its generators in island mode. Meanwhile, Load Shifting reduces the load to allow the on-site battery storage to partially discharge and support the IT load in parallel with, or in isolation from the grid.  

Short Term Operating Reserve (STOR) and Load Reduction is when the utility requests additional power when the actual grid demand is higher than forecast, or in the event of unforeseen generation unavailability. DR providers help to meet the reserve requirement either by providing additional generation or demand reduction. Data centre participation in STOR involves supplying the grid and the data centre from its generators.

Frequency response is often the most lucrative DR program. It's used by utilities to counter unplanned power generation and load imbalance that would otherwise cause a frequency stability problem. 

(For more DR programs and details on each please see Whitepaper details below)

There’s no business like… Demand Response business


At a conference for the broadcast industry a couple of years ago, one TV advertising industry luminary stood before an audience of his peers and said: “The party is over.” 

He was referring to the emerging streaming revolution and the challenges it posed to existing linear broadcaster business models which for the best part of a century had seen companies grow fat and happy on money pouring in. A frantic search for new revenue streams is ongoing. 

The data centre sector needs to realise that it too occupies such a space. For some, the commoditised nature of space, power and cooling are eroding margins so new income is necessary. For others, feeding power back to the grid presents a new potential revenue stream to offset growing energy costs. In commercial data centres and hyperscale, cloud competition is rife and growing.

Perceived risk


There is no doubting that remodelling a data centre to be demand response ready is a complex undertaking. Operators with existing fleets need to approach DR with caution. 

When change projects fail, the biggest impact can be felt on the project leader’s career. To consider making major changes to the power chain of a data centre one might be considered inspired or insane. 

But data centre operations exist in the real world and that world is changing in its attitudes to power and that means changes to the practicalities of data centre operations.  

When change is forced (see energy sector for details) then it simply becomes a question of when and how. It demands a response. 



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