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

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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, 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.

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