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Data center, meet the smart grid

If one looked back at the last sixty years and told a story about the electrical grid, it would be a tale of monumental growth as electricity use in the U.S. is about 13 times what it was in the 1950s. Americans now consume about 20 percent of all energy worldwide.

But in the last decade that growth has slowed to just under one percent per year. The story of the next sixty years will be less about demand growth, but about creating a stable grid in a world of increasing amounts of renewable energy.

The issue with renewable energy integration come down to the reality that with wind and solar, generation is intermittent. You can’t just power up or down a generator as needed. Which has meant that utilities are increasingly looking for its customers to help balance the grid through programs like demand response and frequency regulation which incentivize customer to use less or more power at the precise time that operators need to adjust demand.

The opportunity for data centers

It’s this scenario that has some people wondering if data centers might have a role to play in helping utilities maintain grid stability. It often surprises many to learn that data centers are built with about 20 percent extra capacity and on top of that can have utilization rates as low as 10 percent. They are designed to absorb spikes in usage, like when Michael Jackson died and sites from Twitter to MSNBC struggled to stay available.

Much is written about how companies like Apple and Facebook have gone to states like North Carolina and Oregon respectively to access cheap, abundant power for its data center buildouts. And it’s precisely because data centers are such power hogs that they make attractive targets to shed and take power as needed to help balance the grid. Facebook’s Oregon data center has a capacity of 28 megawatts out of a total regional grid capacity of 720 megawatts, making it the largest commercial user of power in the region.


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