Depending upon whom you ask, data centers are either the gluttons of huge chunks of the world’s energy production, or the models of energy efficiency in the modern world. Data Center Knowledge research has pointed in recent years much more toward the latter reality: Power engineers have used data centers as laboratories for implementing efficiency techniques, as processor manufacturers continue to make gains in optimizing performance for ever-lower power envelopes.
Yet this may be a short-term positive trend amid a longer-term (though not all that long) grim prospect. That’s the message Schneider Electric experts have been sending, and on Thursday, they turned up the volume. In an invite-only event for select customers and select members of the press, the company framed the still-potentially-catastrophic climate problems facing our world as a whole, following up immediately by introducing a new line of more compact UPS power systems and battery cabinets for the data center.
“We believe. . . there will be no future, [vis-à-vis] carbon-neutral, if we don’t go massively for a full-electric world,” declared SE’s executive vice president for energy management, Phillipe Delorme, “because electricity is the greenest energy; and a full-digital world, to enable more efficiency; and combine the two together, so that we reach that milestone by 2050 of carbon neutrality. And the great news is, we believe there is a path. This is not science fiction, this is not theory, this is practice.”
Delorme’s path would steer operators through to the company’s Galaxy VL line of three-phase UPS cabinets. Announced last April, SE made them available Thursday, in new, much smaller cabinets, delivering between 200 and 500 kW of stored power, incrementable in 50 kW units.
The CTO of SE’s Secure Power division, Jim Simonelli, touted the benefits of Galaxy VL’s forthcoming “grid-interactive” mode, which he said enables these units to provide some power in non-backup circumstances.
“This UPS can be used when coupled with lithium-ion batteries,” described Simonelli, “in a grid-interactive mode, meaning it can be used not just as a device that sits there and waits for power failures, but actually. . . could be used perhaps for peak shaving, or grid support features such as frequency regulation — which doesn’t just help sustainability in the local environment, but can help adopt more renewables to the local, county, state, and even national levels, if enough of them are deployed out there.”
SE continues to drive the movement to move facilities off of valve-regulated lead acid (VRLA) batteries, which remain the most common variety in active use. When lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries were first introduced in data center-ready form factors, there was considerable skepticism about whether they’d be safer. Back in November 2019, Uptime Institute’s Chris Brown advised operators to relegate new Li-ion components to purpose-built rooms, safely distanced from other components, until more data could be gathered about how they react in failure mode circumstances. Thermal runaway was still a concern, and there wasn’t a track record yet for installation procedures and costs.
Simonelli said these new cabinets address these concerns by reducing floor space consumption to just over a square meter, as well as reducing its own connections to just two: its own power, and system control. “These battery cabinets can be daisy-chained and up-and-running in a matter of minutes. We have much lower costs to install than even its predecessors in the lead-acid size.”
Along those lines, SE’s APC division announced Thursday a 3 kW UPS appliance in a 1U form factor. Dubbed Smart-UPS Ultra, it will be made available to North American customers in September, with global availability the following year as the pandemic (hopefully) tails off, and shipping activity returns to normal.
Simonelli called Smart-UPS Ultra “the lightest, smallest, single-phase, 3 kW UPS on the market, bar-none.” It’s better suited to edge environments such as micro data centers, he added, where space may be theoretically non-existent, and your only course of action may be to bracket one of these things to a wall. That can indeed be done, as photographs showed.
But are these really the tools for averting, as SE’s Delorme intimated, global catastrophe? Recent and semi-recent studies have pointed to the surprisingly high carbon cost of producing Li-ion batteries — their cells, the chemicals used in fueling those cells, along with the plastics, aluminum, and other materials used in housing and containment. An August 2016 study by engineers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology estimated that the sum total of the energies consumed in the production of a Li-ion rechargeable battery, averages 110 gram-equivalents of CO2 (“greenhouse gas”) emissions (g CO2 e) for every 1 watt-hour (Wh) of storage capacity.
Based on Data Center Knowledge estimates made last February with the help of world power expert Jonathan Koomey, producing the battery components for a 3 kW APS Smart-UPS Ultra unit, produces as much carbon emissions as running the average mid-engine, gasoline-burning automobile for about 38 hours.
We asked SE’s senior vice president for its North American IT division, Jay Owen, what his company can do to help its customers compensate for, and eventually overcome, the “carbon traps” that Li-ion batteries leave — the fact that it takes carbon emissions to reduce carbon emissions.
“There’s no doubt that Schneider is a purpose-driven company,” Owen responded, “and part of that purpose is to enable sustainability across all aspects of our business.”
Li-ion has the advantages, he told us, of lasting longer and being recyclable, in that a producer can make new Li-ion components out of old ones. In addition, it’s typically smaller and lighter. “From my point of view, if you think about those benefits, it makes perfect sense to move in the direction of Lithium-ion from VRLA, or other, older battery technologies. Is it the end-all/be-all? No, probably not. But it is the best solution today, for the application that we have.”
A rising chorus of Li-ion skeptics, especially in social media circles, point to the fact that users don’t necessarily recharge Li-ion cells using renewable energy sources. That may be true for general consumers, Owen pointed out, but certainly not for SE’s own consulting clients. Schneider’s power consultants frequently help data center operators procure renewable energy.
“We are a very large energy procurer on behalf of clients,” he told us, “and when clients are interested, in particular, in purchasing energy from renewable resources, we can help enable them to do that.
“I can’t stand up and say that data centers, in everything that we do, are 100-percent neutral,” Jay Owen continued. “But providing more efficient products helps enable our customers to meet those goals.”