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Powering up in the Digital Revolution

Powering up in the Digital Revolution

Jonathan Standen 18 May 2021
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. E:   jonathan.standen@lichfields.uk T:   (0)1133971397 Image credit: George Morina from Pexels

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Looking into the Budget tea leaves

Looking into the Budget tea leaves

Ciaran Gunne-Jones 05 Mar 2020
​See Lichfields' "Budget 2020 - getting it done" Economic outlook for  reactions and analysis of Rishi Sunak's first Budget speech.  Rishi Sunak’s ministerial red box was already overflowing when he took office last month – handed the keys to Number 11 at short notice following the resignation of Sajid Javid – and it has been a tumultuous three weeks since. With coronavirus now weighing down heavily on the global economic outlook, the early tetchy stages of the UK’s negotiations with the European Union on future trade underway, and speculation of interest rate cuts later this year, the Chancellor may well be turning to his preferred brand of Yorkshire tea leaves for guidance.   Given the macroeconomic uncertainties, HM Treasury officials are reported as saying that next week’s Budget will be the first installment in a “trilogy” of statements this year – something for the aficionados to relish. Some decisions on tax, spending and borrowing are likely to be pushed back to the autumn, a year after last November’s Budget was itself postponed due to the general election. However, the Budget is one of the key set pieces of the parliamentary calendar, and is particularly important in the context of a new government keen to deliver quickly on its manifesto promises. So what might the Chancellor’s red box hold in terms decisions on planning, infrastructure and regional economic policy? Here’s a round-up of 10 key points to look out for next Wednesday: Economic growth – tea leaves aside, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – the independent fiscal watchdog – will publish its latest UK economic forecasts alongside the Budget. It is widely expected that the OBR will downgrade their forecasts from those published in March 2019. This matters because it would result in higher forecasts for government borrowing and, in theory, give less bandwidth to increase public spending if the Chancellor also wants to limit tax increases in line with manifesto commitments. ‘Levelling up’ – the phrase that featured prominently in the Conservative election campaign, and is already permeating into the policy sphere (seemingly replacing the ‘rebalancing’ lexicon which became popular in the Osborne and Hammond eras). The Queen’s Speech in December referred to making investments, “in order to unleash productivity and improve daily life for communities across the country.” Following success in breaking the so-called ‘Red Wall’ in the North and Midlands, the government have been clear that levelling up will be a key factor in all future policy and decision-making, so we can expect this theme to be writ large. Practically, this could extend to creating a new hub for HM Treasury officials on Teesside. Revisions to the Green Book – the ‘Green Book’ (HMT’s guidance for appraising public spending decisions) was an unlikely media star over the quiet Christmas news cycle when it was reported that significant revisions are in the works aimed at boosting investment in the North and Midlands. We considered the implications in an earlier blog. The Budget will provide an opportunity for the Chancellor to set out the details on how this will work in practice, but clarity about how decisions on local infrastructure spending will be decided will be keenly sought from both north and south. Devolution White Paper – government has committed to publishing a Devolution White paper, promising a review of more directly elected mayors in the mould of the Metro Mayor, and the possibility of more combined authorities and unitary authorities. These policies reflect wider effort to devolve decision-making to the local level. The future of sub-national partnerships such as the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine and Oxford-Cambridge corridor will also depend on any funding and powers devolved to them over the next few years. Planning White Paper – in the works since being first announced by Theresa May in March 2019, and now anticipated around the time of the Budget or shortly thereafter. A recent Ministerial Written Answer confirmed, “the purpose of the White Paper will be to make the planning process clearer, more accessible and more certain for all users, including homeowners and small businesses. It will also address resourcing and performance in Planning Departments.” It remains to be seen what influence Jack Airey’s (co-author of Policy Exchange’s report in January on ‘Rethinking the Planning System’ for the 21st Century’) recent appointment as No. 10 housing and planning adviser will have on policy proposals. Local Industrial Strategies – Mayoral Combined Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) across the country have been busy preparing their local response to the national Industrial Strategy since 2018 through the form of Local Industrial Strategies (LIS). So far, seven LIS have been agreed and published but some thirty remain in the pipeline still to be agreed with central government. At the very least, an extension to the deadline for nationwide coverage by March 2020 seems inevitable – or potentially a shift to something different as has been rumoured. The Budget could usefully provide some clarity. Big infrastructure – the recent confirmation of HS2 might signal that the government is moving towards funding big ticket infrastructure investment, relaxing its fiscal rules. Eyes will be on the Budget to see whether this is backed with investment for Northern Powerhouse Rail and an indication on the future of the Oxford-Cambridge growth corridor. A further indication of the priorities of this government might be its omission of major road investment announcements (so far transport infrastructure spending announced has been for trains, busses and cycling), but this will need squaring with the legally-binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Research and development – in the spirit of levelling up, the Prime Minister and his Special Adviser Dominic Cummings are looking closely at R&D funding nationally, pointing out that more than half of the national gross domestic expenditure on R&D is spent in London, the South East, and East of England. This might be through investing into nationally-significant hubs like the “MIT for the North” and the Midlands “Gigafactory”. Options include strengthening the existing Catapult Centres, National Productivity Investment Fund and Strength In Places funds, or through new initiatives. UK Shared Prosperity Fund – further detail on the plans to replace the £2.1billion EU structural and investment funding, the proposed UK Shared Prosperity Fund, is long awaited. A consultation period is expected before the fund kicks in. While the fund is committed to tackling inequalities between communities by raising productivity in areas of the country that are ‘furthest behind’, clarity is needed to ensure local authorities have certainty over long term funding arrangements in order to effectively plan for future interventions. Freeports – a key policy for government, given the aspirations for global trade following Brexit. They will operate similarly to enterprise zones but specifically for port areas, in which goods are only charged tariffs when they leave the freeport area. With a 10-week consultation recently launched by the Government aims to announce up to 10 new freeports across the UK at the end of this year to be operating in 2021. The Budget provides the Chancellor with the opportunity to say more about the potential funding and regulatory framework for this initiative. With a promised dose of new public spending, a significant parliamentary majority and a new phase of Brexit and global macroeconomic developments, next week’s Budget will be significant not just for the decisions made but how this sets the tone for policy and funding for the years ahead. Lichfields will be providing further comment on the Budget in due course. Click here to subscribe for updates (opens in email) Image credit: Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak)  

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