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Sustainability-in-Tech : 600% Data-Centre Electricity Increase In a Decade

In a speech shared on LinkedIn, National Grid Chief Executive, John Pettigrew, highlighted how demand for electricity from commercial data centres will increase six-fold, within just ten years.

Double The Demand On The Grid By 2050 

Comparing today’s problem of grid network constraint to that of the 1950s, Mr Pettigrew identified the key challenges of demand on the grid growing dramatically, and forecast to double by 2050 as heat, transport and industry continue to electrify.

Why The Dramatic Increase In Data Centre Power Demand? 

Mr Pettigrew put the dramatic predicted six-fold commercial data centre power demand down to factors like the future growth in foundational technologies like AI and quantum computing requiring larger scale, energy-intensive computing infrastructure.

Innovative Thinking Required 

Mr Pettigrew also highlighted how the UK’s high voltage ‘supergrid’ of overhead pylons and cables that powered the UK’s industries and economy over decades is now 70 years old. As such, faced with the challenge of needing to “create a transmission network for tomorrow’s future” Mr Pettigrew suggested that we are at a “pivotal moment” that “requires innovative thinking and bold actions.”

Possible Solutions 

One possible solution, highlighted in Mr Pettigrew’s speech, for creating a grid that can meet future demands is the construction of an ultra-high voltage onshore transmission network of up to 800 thousand volts. It’s thought that this could be “superimposed on the existing supergrid” to create a “super-supergrid” which could enable bulk power transfers around the country. One key advantage of this approach could be using strategically located ultra-high capacity substations which can support the connection of large energy sources to big demand centres, including data centres, via the new network.

Power-Hungry 

It has long been known that data centres are power-hungry and require enormous amounts of water (for cooling), as well as needing to find sustainable solutions for using the excess heat productively. Factors such as the growth in cloud computing and the IoT, as well as the huge power demands of AI, have been identified as key factors driving the growing need for energy by data centres. Recent ideas for how to provide cooling for data centres have included immersion cooling / submerging servers in liquid and even having them submerged under the sea as underwater data centres. Ideas for producing enough power have included building dedicated small nuclear power stations / Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) adjoining each data centre. Ideas for how to best use the excess heat include heating nearby homes and businesses and even growing algae which can then be used to power other data centres and create bioproducts.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

The growth in cloud computing, the IoT, and now AI, have all meant an increase in the demand for more power. All of this comes at a time when there is a need to decarbonise and move towards greener and more sustainable energy sources. This rapidly increasing demand, coupled with the constraints of an ageing, creaking grid (as highlighted in the recent speech by John Pettigrew), means that there is now an urgent need for innovative ideas and the action to match if the UK’s businesses are to be served with the power they need to fuel the tech-driven future.

The ideas, however, must be ones that not only meet the demand for power from UK businesses and data centres, but do so in a sustainable way that meets decarbonising targets. As highlighted by Mr Pettigrew, creating a “super-supergrid” is an idea currently on the table, but a boost in wind, wave, solar, nuclear, and other power sources, as well as more carbon offsetting by data centre owners, and many other cooling and excess data centre heat distribution ideas will likely all contribute to these targets in the coming years. Also, although running AI models is a major power drain, ironically, AI may also help to provide solutions for how to manage the country’s energy requirements more efficiently and efficiently.