Texas data centers, whose clients rely on their facilities to be up and running 24/7/365, have not missed a beat during recent Texas blackouts thanks to redundant power systems.
“While conventional wisdom dictates that grid instability should create havoc for data centers, major operators in both California and Texas have avoided significant service interruptions thanks to robust backup power systems at most facilities,” wrote Dan Rabb in Bisnow. “Although data centers are among the largest customers of power utilities in both these markets — and while just a few seconds of power loss at a large data facility can be catastrophic — the recent instability has produced little adverse impact on the industry.”
Data center operators in Texas have certainly been tested in 2021 starting with an almost complete grid failure during February’s unprecedented winter storm followed by problems in the spring and summer:
- In April, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) asked Texans to cut back electricity use as the supply of electricity to the power grid was struggling to keep up with demand because some power plants were offline — some due to repairs from the February storm — combined with higher demand than predicted.
- In June, ERCOT asked Texans to turn their thermostats to 78 degrees during the afternoon and evening for the week to reduce electricity demand on the grid after 12,000 megawatts of power generation unexpectedly went offline — enough to power 2.4 million homes on a hot summer day, according to the Texas Tribune.
Of course, both incidents pale in comparison to February’s frigid power failures.
The Night the Lights Went Out in Texas … and Almost Stayed Out
Texas, unique for operating its own power grid with most of the state not interconnected to the rest of the country, came within 4 minutes and 37 seconds of a complete failure that would have left Texans without power for weeks, not days.
On the evening of February 14, demand in the Texas power grid was dangerously out-pacing supply.
“If there’s not enough power on the grid to meet demand, ERCOT officials said, the frequency of the grid drops below that 60 hertz level. That can cause physical damage to equipment that moves power around the state. And it can force more power plants to shut down — possibly leading to a complete failure of the grid,” writes Houston Public Media.
The series of events unfolded like this:
- 12:15 a.m. ERCOT declares a first level of emergency alert as power plants go offline across the state as equipment freezes up.
- 1:07 a.m. ERCOT moves to a second level emergency alert triggering power reductions to some industrial customers.
- 1:23 a.m. ERCOT declares the highest level emergency with one-third of the state’s power supply down, triggering rolling blackouts.
- 1:51 a.m. The power grid drops to 59.4 hertz, and then to 59.3 hertz, if it stays below the 59.4 hertz threshold for nine minutes, a complete grid failure could occur.
- The grid stayed under 59.4 hertz for 4 minutes and 23 seconds but began to rise after customers were dumped off the grid.
- 2:03 a.m. The grid is above 60 hertz again but there is not enough power to stop the blackouts, many of which continue for days.
Despite all the drama, Bisnow says “a survey of Texas data centers during the February deep freeze showed that nearly all major facilities continued operating with no downtime, using on-site power sources at times when grid power was unavailable.”
PS Lightwave CEO Rhonda Cook said their 12,000-square foot LightHouse Data Center located near Houston’s Galleria business district “stayed up and running during the February crisis. We experienced no downtime thanks to our onsite employees who monitor our facility around the clock and to the redundant power sources we have in place.”
Data Centers by Design are Blackout-Ready
Data Centers by design, with backup in-house power sources that can run their facilities for days, are prepared to meet the challenges of blackouts and other power grid issues.
The Uptime Institute, a data center advisory organization focused on improving the performance, efficiency, and reliability of the industry’s critical infrastructure, is even suggesting that large colocation and hyperscale data centers think of their on-site power sources as the main source of energy and the local grid as a backup.
The key is for larger data centers to not think of local grid failures as unexpected but as something that is going to naturally occur.
“On-site power production (e.g. engine generator, fuel cell) are considered the primary source for the data center. The local power utility Is an economic alternative. Disruptions to the utility power are not considered a failure, but rather an expected operational condition for which the site must be prepared,” according to the Uptime Institute “Data Center Site Infrastructure Tier Standard: Topology” standards paper.
Companies that fear disruptions at their own data centers can deploy hardware into facilities such as PS Lightwave’s Tier II LightHouse Data Center which can serve as a backup and disaster recovery for hybrid cloud solutions.
Data Centers Could Help Provide Power to Grids
Data Centers can not only survive during blackouts but can thrive with their ability to voluntarily return power to a struggling grid.
“The energy shortage may lead to some headaches and increased costs, but it also opens doors for hyperscale and large colocation operators to leverage their on-site power generation to reduce their own energy spending and sell power back to public utilities that desperately need it,” wrote Rabb in Bisnow.
Uptime Institute chief technical officer Christopher Brown laid out the following hypothetical for Bisnow: “Look at a scenario where the power company says they’re going to be running a deficit for two hours until they can get another turbine at another power plant fired up and online and producing power. Data centers can then pull some of that power off the grid by starting their own on-site power production and help to try to stabilize the grid.”
Those in the Houston area know that the oil and gas business has operated along similar lines for years with pipeline operators routinely shutting down infrastructure upon request from power operators with energy credits earned in return.