A smart way to integrate alternative energy and conventional power

How data centers owners are using smart switches in their micro-grids to ensure a constant 'integrated' power supply for their operations

One of technology’s inherent hurdles has been figuring out how to make new inventions work together with conventional systems designed in another era. The auto industry invested years of research and funding to develop hybrid vehicles that can be powered by either conventional gasoline drivetrains or electricity. When computer screens posed a challenge to TV screens, the electronics industry ultimately found a way to combine both so that viewers could choose between watching a show on cable or via apps built into the television set.

Now the data center owner confronts a similar issue: how to integrate traditional electric utility power with power from an alternative energy source, such as a wind farm, solar panel array or fuel cells. Increasingly data centers are creating micro-grids that carry energy from renewable sources to ensure that critical servers and other equipment have high-quality power available in case the utility supply spikes, drops or cuts off. Micro-grids also enable data center owners to sell excess electricity produced by the micro-grid back to the utility for use during peak hours.

Most of the time the micro-grid will be online with the utility serving as back-up; on other occasions the utility will be the main power source, such as when batteries are being replaced or other repairs are being made to the micro-grid. The challenge is finding a way to be certain that, during the changeover between the utility and the micro-grid, power is not interrupted for longer than a few milliseconds. Fortunately, there’s a switch for that.

The grid-tie switch can cut off one power supply while maintaining a steady connection with the other. Mechanical transfer switches, however, become increasingly sluggish as the power load being switched increases. That’s why the data center industry is turning to the “smart switch,” which uses sensors and semiconductors to perform the switching function.

The smart switch enables the quick connection and disconnection of the micro-grid energy source and critical loads to and from the utility grid. It also anticipates power-source failure and makes necessary connections and disconnections without interruption of power through the use of silicon-controlled rectifiers (SCRs), which provide the best combination of speed and surge capability for the application.

This fast-acting, automatic low-voltage switch is helping data centers go green by ensuring that power supplies can be maintained and making it easy to “island” the micro-grid when utility issues otherwise would cause problems.

The smart switch is helping to tie technologies together to keep data safe and data center operators confident of their power supply.

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About the author

Christopher Belcastro

I serve as an electrical engineer with ABB Power Solutions and I'm responsible for the research, design and development of power protection products for the data center and industrial markets. These products include uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), the static transfer switch and power distribution equipment. I joined ABB in 2012 and previously served as a controls engineer with Metalsa Roanoke and as an electrical design engineer with Spectrum Design. I'm a member of the IEEE Power & Energy Society, Power Electronics Society and Electromagnetic Compatibility Society and I'm active in the Power Electronics Section of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA). I have a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. I live in Glen Allen, Virginia.
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