How data centres can help give back to Africa’s electricity grid

Kenya Power workers at work along Nyerere Avenue in Mombasa. FILE PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG

Africa has received increased investment in data centres in the past few years, driven by the demand for data across multiple industries.

While this is likely to accelerate infrastructure and capacity development on the continent, it also brings to the forefront a key concern around energy consumption and efficiency.
As the continent undergoes digital transformation, monthly data consumption is forecast to increase by over 300 percent between 2018 and 2024.

However, in the past few years, data centre growth has resulted in rising energy use, increasing by 10-30 percent per year.

And as the continent moves towards energy efficiency, this is hugely concerning since data centres already account for three percent of global electricity use.
Therefore, to provide relief and drive energy efficiency, more renewables will be required to support the growing demand and address these challenges.

And with an extensive carbon footprint, data centres will need to be a catalyst in this adoption of renewables.

By utilising renewables, they will not only reduce their environmental impact but also have the opportunity to improve the resilience of their own power network and to optimise the performance of the grid upon which they rely for power.
On a positive note, data centre owners recognise the importance of addressing the industry's challenges.

When questioned about meeting their energy transition and sustainability goals, half of the respondents to a 2022 S&P Global Market Intelligence report, commissioned by Eaton, said the need to increase renewables was a priority, with 47 percent citing improving energy storage, and a more than a third (34 percent) saying it was important to turn their energy management from a cost to a revenue centre.
Around two in five (38 percent) of the respondents, however, suggested that optimising their energy consumption represented a challenge, with nearly the same proportion (37 percnt) saying the same for meeting sustainability goals.

But data centres already have many services within their existing Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) infrastructure they can offer to enable this.
With frequency containment, for example, active power reserves are automatically controlled based on deviations in grid frequency, while dispatchable power involves sources of electricity which can be programmed on demand at the request of power grid operators.

Another alternative, UPS with fast frequency response (FFR) capabilities, will enable a data centre’s backup power system to provide auxiliary energy services back to the grid when required, without diminishing the integrity or performance of the data centre.
By helping to deliver an increasingly important grid-interactive supply, utilising existing assets in this way will improve a data centre’s green credentials and reduce capital expenditure.

The writer is Regional Manager, Eastern Africa, Eaton Corporation.

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