Corned beef and cabbage …and microgrids

A working lunch turns up interesting perspectives on data center power options

It was St. Patrick’s Day in New York, and over at the Marriott Marquis, ABB was hosting a lunchtime workshop as part of Data Center Dynamics’ Converged Enterprise conference. But this would not be your typical eat-and-listen exercise. No, this was… an exercise. We had work to do.

We broke up into groups, each charged with evaluating a particular technology’s impact on a hypothetical firm’s data center operations. Mine focused on how microgrids could be used to benefit Shamrock Corp. (Did I mention it was St. Patrick’s Day?)

The table was populated by enterprise data center managers along with a couple of consultant/vendor execs, and I expected to hear the usual talking points about reliability as the main selling point. (Did I mention this was New York, where memories of Sandy are still fresh?)

What I didn’t expect to hear was a good deal of talk about energy costs and the potential to switch from grid power to microgrid power, or even to operate in an islanded mode by default. Then I remembered that the most of the people sitting at the table worked in New York, home to some of the highest electricity rates in the country.

Microgrids do offer some compelling benefits in terms of reliability and energy efficiency, but my impression (as a complete novice) was that these things came at a premium if you were going to run primarily on self-generated power. That’s probably still true for most of the US, but as always there is a segment of consumers at the margin where the economics become more interesting.

With the price of natural gas banished to below $3/MMBtu it might be tempting to think that cheap energy is here to stay. So why not cut the cord and run your data center with a microgrid and local generation?

The time is surely coming, though, perhaps sooner than we think, when gas prices will rise again. With coal in retreat from environmental regulation, there isn’t anything cheaper that can scale up. Solar is at grid parity in a few locations (e.g., Hawaii, where the alternative is diesel generation), but it’s physically impossible to site a multi-megawatt PV array in the middle of Manhattan. Ditto for wind turbines.

So when the price of natural gas starts to turn northward, what’s a data center to do? In the years ahead, it may well be that a fully independent microgrid is just the ticket.

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About the author

Bob Fesmire

Bob Fesmire is a Strategic Communications Manager at ABB, based in Cary, North Carolina. He has written more than 120 articles and white papers on a variety of topics including smart grid technology, energy efficiency and industrial automation. In addition to his work at ABB, Bob is also the co-author of Energy Explained, a non-technical introduction to all aspects of the energy industry. Currently, he is working on an introduction to power generation for the lay reader.
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