US Power Grid Has Issues with Reliability

The United States has an aging and unreliable power infrastructure, writes Lisa Rhodes of Verne Global. Data center operators are looking at the best geographical locations that offer clean, reliable power, and plenty of it.

Lisa Rhodes, Vice President of Marketing and Sales, Verne Global, which owns and operates a data centre campus in Iceland.

Verne_Lisa_RhodesLISA RHODES
Verne Global

The threat of losing power is among the top stressors for industries such as data centers, hospitals and universities. It’s never a good moment when operators get the dreaded phone call saying power has been lost; unfortunately, it seems as though it’s starting to happen more frequently than ever.

According to CNN, over 140 million customers rely on the three interlinked sectors of the more than 3,200 electric distribution utilities, 10,000+ generating units and tens of thousands of miles of transmissions that make up the United States’ power grid. With an average of nearly 500,000 people affected daily by U.S power outages, it is safe to say that the power grid is reaching its capacity and weakening with the age and declining infrastructure as its main culprits. Experts are worried and it’s with good reason. With the yearly costs of U.S. outages running into the billions, the unease and unpredictability of the infrastructure as well as the lack of physical security, has caused some uncertainty among large-scale power users, such as data centers. As a result, data centers are being force to think outside of the box and become innovative with alternative power sources.

In the past year alone, there have been documented instances, such as with Superstorm Sandy, where the power grid weaknesses were exposed or where officials, such as those in Texas, stepped in to prevent a possible blackout. As a result, several industries, including data centers, were forced to limit or shut down operations, causing massive problems from customers and the public. As one of the largest energy consumers, data centers are among the first to feel the pressure of a waning grid. From lack of connectivity to generator failures and everything in between, the aging power grid is threatening to hurt the data center industry in more ways than one.

Aging Power Infrastructure

The original power grid pathways—similar to a highway system—were built in the early 20th century. Additionally, many utility companies have structures that have been running for 50 to 70 years. Unfortunately, the infrastructure age is causing further problems to the weakening grid. When first built, the lines were adequate; however, as time has progressed there are multiple areas of weakness that have started to show up, causing the uncertainty.

At the current rate the grid is falling, the existing competencies won’t be able to stand up to the future needs without a billion dollar price tag to make the necessary upgrades possible. By pushing systems harder than they’ve been pushed before, the grid can be held accountable for several blackouts in the previous decade- including the infamous 2003 northeastern blackout and the most recent Superstorm Sandy.

According to a report from Mary Meeker, there are over 2.4 billion Internet users worldwide with the number expected to increase 8 percent yearly. In the United States alone, the number of users is over 244 million with a projected 3 percent yearly increase. With the rapid growth in the coming years, data center operators are under increasing pressure to ensure their facilities stay online. Customers demand the ability to access data at any given time and campuses can’t let them down due to power failure. For example, campuses in the Tri-State area went on high alert for preparedness when Sandy hit; however nothing could assist them when their servers, generators and other critical powering devices failed as a result of the utility power loss. Throughout the storm, companies lost the ability to access mission critical documents and popular news websites were down; all of which had data center managers scrambling for solutions. Nearly two months after the storm and Ellis Island is still suffering without power, causing nearly all its historical artifacts to be removed and kept in safe keeping.


Another concern of the power grid comes from the lack of security. Just recently it was revealed that the energy grid has become vulnerable to attack. Coming from the recent declassification of a 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences, the lack of a physical security has experts worried. Although the United States Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has been assigned with creating a new security strategy through its nearly created office of Energy Infrastructure Security, the threat still exists. If attacked, experts warn that the power grid could suffer more damage than it did during Superstorm Sandy with the possibility of massive blackouts lasting weeks or even months at a time.

While this knowledge has likely cause operators additional stress, one way to help alleviate the burden is to look at renewable resources— such as hydro, geothermal, solar and wind—for power. By using renewable resources, operators can take extra precaution to protect their campuses from future security risks regarding power sources. If hackers attack the power grid, operators will have a peace of mind knowing they can continue operations thanks to the innovative power supply.

New Power Options

To help alleviate the strain on the power grid, data center operators are finding new ways to gather power. As the risks increase, no longer can they rely solely on the power of their host country and supplemental power is becoming vital. With demand for energy at an all-time high it’s crucial to ensure the power stays on even as the grid stretches to capacity. As a result of the pressure from the weakening grid, data centers have begun to utilize renewable resources harvested from their surroundings.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, data centers across the country can utilize renewable energy technologies, but some technology solutions are better suited for select geographical locations. Although the United States offers suitable locations, some companies have started venturing outside their home countries for stronger solutions. Large enterprises, such as BMW, Facebook and Google have begun to move data center operations abroad to Iceland, Sweden and Finland, respectively. Attracted by the cool climates and relatively low pricing, these artic campuses are allowing operators to harvest renewable resources from their host countries for both power and cooling.

With that, site selection plays the ultimate role in determining whether alternative technology can be accessed. As an added benefit, by gathering energy from the host country via renewables, data centers can control pricing and lower customer’s carbon footprint. Facebook’s facility in Sweden will require 70 percent less power than traditional data centers, while BMW’s move to Icelandic facility will save it around 3,600 metric tons of carbon emissions per year. Furthermore, the campuses will no longer be restricted to only utilizing their host countries power grid. Instead, their ability to gather power with renewable resources will lessen the unease and anxiety suffered by data center operators. Without being bound solely to the host countries power, data centers can remain online even if disaster strikes.

While no one expects the power grid to fail completely, high-power users can and should expect to make lasting changes to how they collect their power. By utilizing alternative technology, data center operators can rest easy knowing their systems will remain online at all times, even during storms as severe as Sandy. Though the aging infrastructure and lack of security will continue to plague the grid, operators can begin to change their responses by taking action and thinking outside the box.

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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