Jonathan Standen discusses the implications for electricity generation and transmission to support the rapid growth in Data Centre storage capacity to meet our Information and Communication Technology demands.
‘The Machine, they exclaimed, feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being’. We haven’t yet arrived at the world described in EM Forster’s The Machine Stops, written over a century ago, but now in the digital age, the scale of change to our everyday lives would be as incomprehensible to his Edwardian readership, as their lives are to Generation Z today.
Without the significant advances in digital technology over recent decades, we would now be in a very different place, even without the ongoing effects to our everyday lives brought about by Covid 19 pandemic. Our lives, work and leisure time are intertwined with the digital revolution, a revolution which continues to expand our digital capabilities at an exponential rate.
The digital age brings with it hugely significant benefits which have contributed to the new normal, transforming the way we do business, access information, communicate and work together more effectively at a local and global level. By taking advantage of advanced processing workflow automation such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, companies now connect the dots and in a way that would never have been thought possible before. The attentive digital consciousness that is Siri, Alexa and Cortana ensure that on demand, we can listen to our choice in music, watch films or even provide instruction to our domestic appliances. More so, the pandemic has heightened our reliance on group team calls with colleagues to weekly family Zoom quizzes and from ordering everything online announced by the ubiquitous deliveryman’s daily knock at the door.
The process of digital transformation is fundamentally changing the way we utilise and store intelligent data, undertake business and interact with our customers. Globally the digital economy contributes over 15% to total economic activity by value added income or employment (Oxford Economics 2017). This will continue to rise.
In the wake of the £2.6 billion Superfast programme, the UK has made rapid progress in ensuring we have access to the digital revolution, with almost 40 percent of homes and businesses now able to access next-generation gigabit speeds, compared to just 9 percent in 2019. In March, the Government announced plans for Project Gigabit which will see £5 billion invested in remote and rural areas so that no one is left behind by the connectivity revolution. Boris Johnson told us ‘Project Gigabit is the rocket boost that we need to get lightning-fast broadband to all areas of the country. This broadband revolution will fire up people’s businesses and homes, and the vital public services that we all rely on, so we can continue to level up and build back better from this pandemic.’ - no more battling over the bandwidth, but providing more freedom to live and work anywhere in the country, with the potential to create tens of thousands of new jobs through the delivery a game-changing infrastructure upgrade. The Data Economy is currently worth circa £73bn to the UK economy, of which Data Centres (DATC) form an integral part. Forecasts suggest investment of an additional 11% to 2025 is necessary to maintain growth trajectory and benefit to commerce.
The advancement of technology and its use this way needs however to be supported by significant investment in infrastructure, not least data storage capability and the energy generation to power it. DATC account for 1% of worlds electricity used in 2020 (Jones 2020). This is set to rise to 13%, potentially as high as 20% by 2030 as the digital world grows. In the UK, powering of DATC presently accounts for approximately 12% of electricity generation. DATC facilities can range in size from small 100ft2 cabinets up to massive 400,000ft2 “hyperscale” warehouses (Shehabi et al, 2016). Whenever you use any service on the internet, you are connecting to one of many millions of servers located in one of many thousands of DATC around the world.
Consumption principally arises from powering and cooling roughly in equal proportion of 43% with the remainder used in processing data, there is therefore an ongoing need to increase DATC energy efficiency and use electricity in a smarter way. This is quantified by Power Usage Effectiveness or PUE which is defined as the power consumed by equipment to manage, process and store data. Total facility power includes everything that supports the DATC electrical load, such as cooling systems, including chillers, air conditioning and lighting. Such is the need to keep DATC at a constant cool temperature, construction often employing a ‘raised floor space’ which sits above the building's original concrete slab floor, leaving the open space created between the two for wiring or cooling infrastructure.
The rise, projected number and size of DATC throughout the UK has significant capacity implications for energy generation, transmission infrastructure and carbon footprint. With the UK consuming almost 7% of worldwide datacentre power, it is self-evident that measures must be taken to manage and respond to this ever-rising figure, through both efficiency of existing data centre operation but also bringing forwards, at pace, the permitting and commissioning of new large scale energy generation and transmission infrastructure, in particular renewables and other low carbon options as recognised in the UK through the policy provisions of National Policy Statement EN-1 – Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy.
With the information and communications technology ecosystem as a whole currently accounting for more than 2% of global carbon emissions, this is predicted to grow to in line with the increase of electricity consumption. However, data-based communication industries in the UK are making great strides towards the goal of carbon neutrality. In the UK, according to Greenpeace, 76.5% of the electricity purchased by commercial data centre operators is 100% certified renewable and a further 10% is purchased according to customer requirement, which increasingly means renewable, taking that total up further.
With the Government committed to moving quickly in achieving Net Zero (carbon neutrality) by 2050 and the overwhelming majority of local authorities and organisations including the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) proclaiming a firm commitment to being carbon neutral or negative by 2030, to address the challenges of Climate Change, there is both a demonstrable and critical need for a technological mix of new renewable electrical generation infrastructure to be commissioned to reflect our growing ICT and DATC needs.
Constraints on existing capacity mean that at times of peak demand, the electricity supply network is becoming strained with congestion on urban electricity supply grids. If we stood still, the position would be exacerbated, particularly with the growing roll out and reliance upon electrically powered modes of transport as evidenced by the emergence of the Giga battery manufacturing facilities in the Midlands and North East.
Constrained power supply means that a regional approach is required for the location of DATC facilities, with locations in the major cities throughout the UK being considered. With DATC occupying increasingly larger footprints, major DATC operators require large-scale purpose-built facilities to meet needs. From a planning and land use perspective, DATC are typically identified a use class B2/ B8 / sui generis use, with sufficient connection to the grid to allow for scalability. The need for new DATC capacity is therefore likely to increase demand for such sites with access to electrical grid capacity, large scale electricity generation and potential for clustering.
Co-location of data centres presents significant opportunity for supply efficiency, but also location close to large scale renewable energy sources or battery storage capacity will contribute to overcoming data centre capacity power shortfalls in a particular area, as is the case in central London at present. According to the Estates Gazette (2020), Data Centres outside London already account for 56% all ‘raised floor space’ in the UK, and this is set to continue.
When viewed together, digital data storage and processing capacity, electrical demand, renewable and low carbon energy generation and transmission and land requirements are closely interlinked. Advancement within the digital age needs to be achieved in a sustainable way. We must effectively plan ahead but recognise there is a need to respond quickly to consenting and then install the necessary infrastructure to support it.
Through operation, DATCs make a significant contribution to a new way of living that is itself sustainable. With an eye towards Net Zero, planning authorities may point towards energy consumption of standalone facilities, and then look at offsetting, and sourcing from renewable suppliers. However, as with each new facility provided, our ability to shop from home, hold teams’ meetings and all the other aspects of a new way of living that no longer requires travel is enhanced. New DATC capacity is essential if this new way of working is to be fully realised. This is difficult to quantify, but there is a responsibility for Local Planning Authorities to consider these wider benefits when looking at DATC applications.
The pace of technological change brings with its unimagined benefits in the way we live, work and spend our leisure time but also on the way, there are challenges to our global environment which we must effectively plan ahead for on a national and global scale. Planned for in a sustainable way, we and Generation Z will reap the benefits of this brave new world.
Jonathan Standen is a Planning Director with town planning consultants Lichfields.
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