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Are We Ready for Battery Powered Data Centers?

Jul 28, 2015

What has changed in the 18 months since we looked at this idea? Lots!

We have published several pieces in our occasional series concerning energy and data centers, particularly green or non-traditional power options. Topics range from using data centers to heat our homes and businesses to volcano powered data centers, or more properly, geothermal powered data centers. In our December 2013 piece titled Battery Powered Data Centers? We looked at the possibility of operating data centers using then state of the art battery technology. Link to Article The conclusion at that time was although projects were underway, cost and performance data were lacking, therefore proceed slowly.

A demonstration project in Oregon installed a 5 MW array of 1,440 rack-mounted lithium-ion battery modules supplied by Indiana based EnerDel, a privately held company supplying energy storage, hybrid transportation and industrial systems. Link to EnerDel

Figures 1, 2. EnerDel has expanded to the transportation industry as shown in the bus battery pack (Left Image) while Tesla has branched out into the non-transportation sectors with products like the Tesla Powerwall (Right Image).

One company to watch mentioned in the piece was Tesla Motors. The article gave a quick, back of the envelope calculation that a 500 10kW rack data center would need to have 2000 Tesla Model S cars to operate the racks and the remaining data center electrical needs. Such an implementation would have made Tesla Motors very happy and the data center employees who took the Model Ss for a recharging run even happier, no one seems to have taken the leap.

Recently Tesla introduced their Tesla Energy business. Link to Announcement Tesla has begun marketing “a suite of batteries for homes, businesses, and utilities fostering a clean energy ecosystem and helping wean the world off fossil fuels.” With this announcement Tesla has branded itself as an energy innovation company and its mission to enable zero emission power generation.

The flagship product is Tesla’s Powerwall, a lithium-ion device available in 7kWh or 10kWh sizes. Of course the “zero emissions” claim is for the battery, not the recharging power generation. Tesla foresees the device being used three ways.

  1. Load Shifting - charging during low demand, lower electrical price periods and then powering a home during high demand, higher price periods, saving the homeowner the rate difference. Homeowners will need demand pricing capability for this to work.

  2. Increase Self-Consumption of Solar Generated Power - some homeowners can sell excess power back to the utility, many cannot or do so at rates below incoming power. Powerwall uses could conceivably store and use their own power and realize the full value. State regulations could promote or deter this, stay tuned.

  3. Backup Power - provide power for times when utility power is interrupted. Areas susceptible to ice storms would benefit. An additional feature would be safety versus gasoline powered generators where some individuals have been overcome when generators were operated in unventilated, indoor areas.

As a Boston area homeowner, the backup power is very interesting since my utility connection is via overhead wires located underneath giant deciduous trees whose limbs are challenged by age and the elements. The utility spends the warmer months pruning back trees that get close to the wires from pole to pole, but the overhead canopy covers these wires and the cable to our home with tons of oak and ash, so the chance of losing power somewhere along the miles of tree lined streets is very high.

Figures 2, 3. “Halloween 2011” nor’easter coated trees with wet snow, ice, taking down power lines across the northeast. Because the storm came before many trees had lost their leaves, the amount of snow sticking to the branches increased greatly leading to even healthy trees coming down onto utility lines.  Left Image  Right Image

One only needs to recall the late October nor’easter that dumped 32 inches of snow on Massachusetts and left 3.4 million homes and businesses without power, in some cases for more than ten days. While daytime temperatures warmed to the low 50s, overnight temperatures were below freezing.

But is Tesla ready for businesses like data centers? 

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