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The data centre industry needs to pull the plug on non-renewable energy

By Jaco du Plooy, Product Manager at Eaton South Africa

While investment in digital infrastructure is certainly a win for economic growth in South Africa and Africa as a whole, as is investment in new data centres, this vital infrastructure needs substantial amounts of energy to function. In fact, it is estimated that data centres could consume a fifth of global electricity by 2025 and create 14% of carbon emissions by 2040. 

Data centres play a crucial role in today’s ever-accelerating Information Age - as the backbone of the digital economy and the very foundation of the world wide web, they are key to creating a platform for growth and encouraging investment in Africa.

There have been several factors driving the demand for data centre infrastructure in South Africa and across the continent, including the COVID-19 pandemic as many organisations were forced to accelerate their migration to the cloud to allow remote working.

The arrival of hyperscalers has driven demand even more, many of which are investing billions into building data centre facilities to cater to African markets, with South Africa poised to become the continent’s data centre hub.

To add to this challenge, data centres must be cooled environments and depend on air conditioning for a stable ambient environment – air conditioning that consumes significant amounts of energy to maintain the correct temperature.  

Rather than focus on the energy drain that is a reality for data centres, we can instead take a proactive approach to this challenge. Data centres could in fact lead the charge to help put an end to climate change by harnessing renewable energy to meet 100% of data facilities’ primary power requirements. 

Eaton has always believed in the power of collaboration, which is why we have joined forces with some of the world’s leading experts to overcome the challenge of providing reliable power to data centres, protecting them from the potential pitfalls of intermittent renewable energy sources. 

We joined forces with leading research agencies to find ways of enabling data centres to effectively harness multiple renewable power sources, and to store energy locally in batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. 

Known as the DATAZERO project, this collaboration saw the design of microgrids that combine renewable energy production with hybrid energy storage. Designing a middleware ‘negotiation loop’ as part of the project, that matches energy production and storage with data centre requirements, confirmed that it is possible to run a 1MW data centre with only local renewable power. 

With research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance highlighting that energy from new wind and solar installations will be cheaper than that from natural gas by the mid-2020s, the successor to DATAZERO, DATAZERO2, shows that data centres could even become green energy hubs that help intelligently balance supply and demand across the grid, through a bi-directional flow of power. 

This is possible with the right combination of onsite hardware and energy management software, giving data centres the power to ramp up energy consumption, or optimise the use of renewable energy to prevent outages.