Powering Times Square via Shanghai: How a global smart grid can fuel our insatiable data appetite

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For the first time, this year the number of internet-connected devices is predicted to exceed the global population. While that growth is exciting, all of these devices in their many forms come with dramatically greater demands for connectivity and bandwidth – and will generate large amounts of data that require additional storage space and compute power. Add to that the increasing adoption of cloud computing, big data analytics and other power-intensive activities, and it becomes obvious that the world’s compute power demands will quickly outpace the energy supply that today’s data centers can provide.

To get ahead of these growing demands we will need a smart grid that interconnects power plants and natural energy sources with consumers to intelligently optimize the consumption and distribution of power.

Data centers will become hubs

In order to take full advantage of innovations in smart grid technology, we must first transition data centers into the center of our power and computing activities to monitor and maximize efficiency and plan future energy and cooling sources – all while keeping an increasingly centralized society working, connecting, living and communicating.

Historically, communities were built around religious structures, such as the town church, which brought people together and became an irreplaceable pillar of the community. Today, we are experiencing a similar phenomenon wherein the data center functions as that same pillar but for an online community of enterprises and consumers, positioned at the heart of the digital economy. This will become even more pronounced in the near future, as researchers predict that nearly 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by the year 2050.

Efficient distribution of greener power

Many countries are already making strides to develop smart grids within a given region. The primary benefit of smart grid technology is that it allows power from, say, wind farms in Spain, to be distributed to consumers in Denmark with very little energy lost in transport and at a manageable cost. That way, areas that may not have strong natural resources to generate sustainable energy aren’t forced to rely on coal or natural gas to power their infrastructure. This will become an even more important structure as data centers proliferate to match growing global compute and power demands.

Extending the smart grid’s role

By positioning data centers as the epicenter of everything high-tech, we can extend the scope and role of the smart grid beyond efficient structures and smart power distribution. The current concept of the smart grid ensures that buildings are running as efficiently as possible as standalone structures, but also in combination with a green energy source that is distributed via a smart power infrastructure. By constantly measuring and planning future energy sources that require very little energy to generate and have little impact on the environment, data center operators could power their facilities with significantly fewer resources.

Further, by adding an autonomic planning element to the smart grid that can track energy availability and usage throughout the day, operators would be able to rely on the smart grid to determine when to switch between solar, wind or tidal energy, to name a few. This way operators can rely on the smart grid to determine the best time of day to use different types of power, streamlining the switch from one to another and contributing to a more sustainable environment by using clean energy sources.

For instance, if wind farms create the most energy in the late afternoon whereas solar panels pointed east are most useful in the morning, the smart grid can automatically switch from one power source to the other when it is the most viable and beneficial. With this level of intelligence incorporated into data centers and the smart grid linking them with one another, it’s possible that we could support continuous compute growth over many decades.

The need for a global initiative

While this may seem like a radical concept in territories like the United States or India (where the current electrical grids appear to be duct-taped together rather than planned), Europe is a great example of a region that has made significant progress to unite its energy sources and consumers. New resources are being discovered and explored regularly, offering additional juice to power the growing European smart grid, and consumers in large cities like London, Paris and Madrid are already able to benefit from energy gathered from turbines in the ocean and wind farms in the countryside.

In order to achieve true energy efficiency that goes beyond sustainable power sources, though, this must be a global initiative that is collaborated on by universities, governments, non-profits, corporations and even individuals. With global cooperation, we could see solar panels in China powering nightlights in New York City, orchestrated by a network of data centers strategically positioned around the globe.

Lex Coors is vice president, data center technology and engineering group and chief engineering officer for Interxion. 

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