Can CHP benefit today's Data Centres?

CHP Data Centre

In the pursuit of a more efficient, cost-effective and cleaner energy future, Combined Heat and Power (CHP) has become a recent industry buzzword, emerging as a mid-term opportunity for businesses to help ‘clean up’ the country’s energy act as we look to transition to a more renewable future.

Contrasting conventional electricity generation, where up to two-thirds of energy produced is simply wasted as heat, CHP integrates the production of heat and power into a single process, converting this heat wastage back into usable energy. In so doing, CHP boasts significant energy uplifts, cost savings and emission reductions. For many energy-intensive businesses, CHP – otherwise referred to Cogeneration – seems an assured choice for energy procurement.

Despite comprising one of the most energy-intensive industries, Data Centre up take of CHP has so far lagged behind that of other commercial users. For those within the industry, this comes as no big surprise. Requiring round-the-clock power and back-up capabilities, Data Centres already require multiple power systems; so why invest in another? What’s more, whilst Cogeneration can often replace traditional power generation for many facilities, the same is not true of the Data Centre. With gas engines taking minutes to reach full operational capacity, the CHP system simply cannot provide the necessary response in the case of a power outage – reducing its capability to a third level back up system in this respect. Surely this makes CHP redundant for today’s Data Centres? Not so fast…

Before writing off CHP completely, we put things in perspective…

Will I save money? Will I see ROI?..

These are critical questions in any energy procurer’s mind. For Data Centres, when it comes to CHP, the answer to both of these is, ultimately, yes. CHP systems can significantly reduce a Data Centre’s power expenditure – but not in the way you might think…

With all the talk of back-up power and 24/7 response, it’s easy to overlook the fact that at least a quarter of total Data Centre power usage is outside of these critical competencies. 25 – 35% of a Data Centre’s power needs are for continuous facility cooling, clearly encompassing a significant expenditure. This is where CHP’s main benefit lies. With Cogeneration systems, otherwise wasted heat can be transferred through an absorption chiller into cooling energy, which can then be put directly back into the Data Centre’s cooling system. Compared with electricity powered systems, this reduces demands on electricity. By utilising this method of cooling, Data Centres can therefore see a significant uplift in energy efficiency along with a substantial saving against electricity costs.

However, this is by no means a quick-fix. Data Centres can typically expect to see return on investment – just within four to five years.

Yes, some costs will go up…

Aside from the perceived lack of utilisation, the increased need for regular scheduled maintenance is another reason why CHP uptake has been slow amongst Data Centres. Unlike diesel generators, Cogeneration systems run continuously. In order to maintain optimal performance under this constant pressure, a much more comprehensive maintenance schedule must therefore be employed. With visual inspections, routine system checks, part updated and filter changes all the e carried out at regular intervals (not to mention the staff that might need training) this will inevitably put a new burden on resources. Considering whether the savings on energy bills is enough to offset this additional cost is therefore vital in order to accurately weigh up CHP’s economic benefits.

The environment will thank you…

The Data Centre sector is one of the world’s major consumers of non-renewable energy. In fact, according to recent statistics, Data Centres consume around 3% of the world’s primary electricity supply (50% of which is used for continuous cooling). Plus, 2% of global greenhouse gases are emitted from Data Centres alone – giving the sector the same carbon footprint as the airline industry! What’s more, it is estimated that the current level of Data Centre growth will not be sustainable past the next 10 – 15 years if this continues.

Against this backdrop, the industry faces growing pressure to put energy efficiency at the top of the agenda. Through the decreased reliance on traditional energy sources and utilisation of otherwise wasted energy, CHP has been shown to both increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. For Data Centres, this can therefore go a long way towards relieving at least a portion of the burden on non-renewable energy sources.

Whilst many other industries are starting to rely heavily on CHP to replace traditional power sources and improve their environmental credentials, the decision to integrate CHP into the existing Data Centre system is clearly more complex. However, there’s no doubt that Cogeneration can bring many of the same benefits to the Data Centre as the rest of the commercial world – increased energy efficiency, lower emissions and (eventual) cost savings to name a few.

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