Should data centers own their substations?

Patrick Komischke

It may be worthwhile to consider to ensure the flexibility, reliability and security that your data center will require in the years ahead.

Data centers can be built using the most advanced engineering with the smartest technology, but to energize the facility, operators must reach beyond its walls to an electrical substation. The substation connects the data center to its electric supply, usually a public utility system, although distributed power generation sources such as fuel cells or solar arrays are also being increasingly considered. When relying on a utility, new data center project schedules are influenced by the utility company’s workload and proficiency in determining when the data center can begin operations and understanding the capabilities of the substation to handle the power needs of the center.

If you are a data center owner, one way to add more certainty to your start-up schedule and continuing operational requirements is to procure and own your substation instead of relying on the utility company to provide it. Just as you subcontract electrical and mechanical systems within the data center, you can arrange for a specialized supplier to develop the entire substation to your specs and make the power connections to your facility.

When deciding whether to own a substation, there are several pros and cons to consider.

Advantages of owning your substation:

• When you order a substation from a company like ABB, it will be delivered and ready to go on line much faster than if you procure it from a utility. You may be up and running as much as a year earlier with your own substation. That’s because your interconnection may not be a priority for the utility, but it always will be an imperative with a specialized substation provider.

• As a data center developer, you may not feel you have the experience or expertise to talk with the utility company about your substation needs. When you talk with a substation specialist, however, you are guided through your choices and the deployment process from the perspective of the data center’s requirements, rather than only those of the utility.

• As the substation owner, you have a direct influence on the substation’s budget for construction and operations.

• You can build flexibility and future scalability into your own substation, while the utility company may not prioritize these issues. If you know your data center will grow rapidly or that you will be incorporating other sources of power generation, you can be ready for expansion of the substation right from the start if you plan and construct your own.

• If you wish to do so, you can provide a higher level of physical safety for your data center than the standard substation that the utility company would build for you. Some data centers today want bulletproof covers around transformers or are installed indoors to protect them from vandalism and frequent weather hazards. Others may seek elevated substations to protect them from coastal storm surges or hurricanes. When you own your substation, you can incorporate the type and level of protection that offers you the most peace of mind.

• Once you are operational, you normally may have the option of turning the substation over to the utility later on if you decide you do not want to continue owning and maintaining your substation.

Disadvantages of owning your substation:

• When you own the substation, you need to operate and maintain it. Alternatively, you can contract out maintenance to an expert company like ABB to help ensure your power feed remains secure and efficient.

• You may need to install a remote operating system, combining it with your data center, to monitor and control your own substation. While it adds an additional system to your center, it also adds power assurance.

• If your substation goes down, you and your maintenance subcontractor are responsible for getting the data center running again, so you need to establish monitoring and emergency procedures surrounding the substation as well as the data center itself.

The nature and purposes of data centers are evolving rapidly. It may be worthwhile to consider owning your substation so that you can help ensure that you have built in the flexibility, reliability and security that your data center will require in the years ahead.

About the author

Patrick Komischke

Patrick Komischke serves as ABB’s Head of Asia Sales for ABB’s German substation business unit. Previously he held the role of Engineering Manager in the United States for non-utility substations where he led a team providing engineering and design for a broad span of customers and different applications in the T&D business. In addition he holds the roles of Product Manager for the Civil Network and Chairman of the Civil Council, global collaboration initiative of ABB’s substations business unit. Currently based in Germany, Mr. Komischke has also completed assignments in Indonesia, Qatar and the United States. Mr. Komischke received his MS in Civil Engineering/Civil Project Management from the University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt, Germany.
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