Is it time for more off-grid options for data centers?


Massive thunderstorms knocked out Amazon’s web services on Friday night and the cloud giant was still struggling to get service back up on Saturday, affecting major AWS customers like Netflix, (s nflx) Instagram and Pinterest. To me the news raises the question: is it time for the huge data center operators to more seriously investigate off-grid options?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, and some Internet players already are experimenting with generating their own power onsite for parts of their data centers and using the grid partly as back up power. Last week eBay announced that for an extension of its data center in Utah, it plans to power that new capacity with 30 fuel cells from Bloom Energy, making that section of the data center grid independent.

Apple will be producing 60 percent of the power needs for its data center in Maiden, North Carolina on site with a solar farm and a fuel cell farm. Apple plans to build its next huge data center at The Reno Technology Park in Nevada, which is set up to provide data center operators with ample capacity for onsite clean power and potentially some level of grid independence.

Of course the grid is still the dominant and best way to power data centers. The power grid is relatively reliable, and with data centers consuming between 20 MW and 100 MW, their power needs are mostly too great for many of them to easily go off grid. Backup diesel generators are the most common way to back up data centers when there’s a grid outage, but some data center operators are looking at the next-generation of fuel cells for backup, too.

However, the more experimental Internet leaders seem to see some value in freeing data centers from the power grid in certain circumstances — likely situations like these massive thunderstorms, when utility grids are at their most vulnerable. While utility grids are reliable 99.9 percent (or more) of the time, it’s the emergency situations, where they’re actually not very good at adapting. The smart grid is not alive and well for most utilities. Blackouts during heat waves and winter storms can knock out sections of the utility grid for days (remember the days of blackouts from hurricane Irene last year?).

While many data center operators currently don’t want to be in the power generation business, if they can pool power resources in a data center park it could provide less of a risk. Will the future cutting-edge data center be able to drop off the grid, when there’s a sign of a super stormy night, or a hot-as-heck day? I think some of them will become a lot more flexible when it comes to where their power is coming from, and it might end up not coming from the grid.


Mike Morris

Federal Lawsuit Regarding Bloom Energy

“Buried deep in the permit application, in Table 1 on page 161 of a 163-page application, was the number 884. On that page, under penalty of perjury, Bloom officially told the world that its energy servers emit 884 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour.

Also buried on page 161 of the permit application is a Table 2 notation that says these 235 “clean” servers would emit 22.56 pounds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per day. But Delaware, like other states, regulates VOC emissions at far lower levels (Maryland, for instance, regulates boat repair shops that emit more than 15 pounds per day). Moreover, if the same amount of power had been generated by combined cycle gas turbines, only 0.249 pounds of VOCs would be emitted daily. That’s 90 times less pollution!
To top it off, because of the Bloom servers’ low efficiency and high capital cost, Delaware citizens will pay Bloom over $200 per megawatt hour of power delivered to their electricity transmission grid. But in January 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Agency said the projected “levelized” cost of electricity over the next 30 years from advanced gas-fired combined cycle power stations is $65.50 per MWH.

Bob Landstrom

While having off-grid capabilities is an interesting academic argument, the majority of operators simply do not (and cannot) have this option available to them.

For those Amazons and Facebooks out there, the issues of risk management may shift a bit but still must be addressed in some way.

Jon W. MAys

When I was with a major telecomm company bac it the 80’s we implemented a SOP requiring our people to 1) Be constantly aware of the weather conditions; 2) At least one hour before the anticipated stom was to hit we would hit our :storm Switch” with automatically fired up the generator back-up and once it was up and running it would transfer load to the generators and then disconnect from the utility. It could not return to utility until the Storm Switch was manually activated. With over 500 central offices we never had a power outage when the procedure was followed. There was one instance where a lightning strike blew aout the building transformer and because the ground grid was not properly installed if back-fed the energy through the neutral and blew out a bunch of equipment. That site became my “poster-child” for never using building steel as your primary ground, Cad-Welded or not….

Rob W

This is he classic microgrid application. Keep in mind that the power sources have to follow the data center loads whenever they are disconnected from the grid. The loads in a data center vary day by day and hour by hour. Generally the fiber connectivity between data centers and peering points is extremely reliable.

Data centers with self generation are also perfect candidates for demand response and there are trials to have customer backup generators feed into the grid on demand. The marginal value of demand response kWh’s can be many multiples of the base rate.

David I

The outages were due to failures of backup power systems and incorrect internal DC power system configurations. These are 100% non grid elements.

In the event of storms such as the one suffered recently by the East coast issues like lightning and high speed winds will create always create issues as identified by even large refineries with their own generation plant

Isolation from grid is not going to eliminate human errors which is the largest source data center outages

A combination of 2 levels of self generation and using the the grid as tertiary backup would be a much more reliabme than just unplugging your facility


We will have a patented, fully off-grid, self powered data center live in 2014. For Matt the cost per watt is $4.56 versus the industry standard $28.85 per watt and we eliminate much of the waste inherent in grid based power consumption while providing better protection than grid based systems.


Interesting points for the off-grid options. Mosaic Technology believes it’s always great to have options – and organizations should take advantage of having them when deciding best solutions for their systems. Thanks for sharing!

Mosaic Technology


I agree with Matt and his comment since the last mile ISP connectivity is potentially your most vulnerable risk. I think attempting to isolate your exposure by replication across geographical regions is your best bet for reducing the exposure


Powering your own DC (beyond the usual backup systems) is a nice idea, but you are still at the mercy of your ISPs and their power plans and if you are partnering with other providers, their plans as well. It can get quite complex…and expensive.

Instead, we need to get better, much better, at distributing the functionality across more diverse geographical regions and building failure into our architectures rather than chasing the perfect bastion.

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