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Microsoft's Dublin datacenter to help take pressure off Ireland's renewable energy

Grid-interactive UPS tech to feed some power back to the grid from backup energy storage systems... for a price

Microsoft is to deploy its "grid-interactive UPS technology" at the company's datacenter in Dublin, Ireland, later this year to demonstrate how such technology may be used to help decarbonize power grids.

The Redmond software giant disclosed last month how it and power management specialist Eaton were jointly working on technology that would allow the energy storage systems used for backup power in datacenters to also help smooth out any variability in the power grid due to the unpredictability of renewable energy sources.

Now Microsoft is moving to implement this, saying that its datacenter in Dublin will be a part of the solution to this problem later this year.

According to Microsoft, renewable energy from nearly 400 wind farms already accounts for over 35 percent of the electricity supply for Ireland, and that figure is forecast to grow to 80 percent by 2030. This level of variable power generation requires grid-stabilization services, which would typically be provided by gas or coal-powered plants that can deliver a minimum base load to the electricity grid.

Instead, grid-interactive UPS technology allows facilities such as datacenters to - if necessary - feed some power back to the grid from their backup energy storage systems, typically large banks of lithium-ion batteries managed by a UPS system.

This is not some sort of philanthropic gesture on behalf of corporations like Microsoft, of course, but a way for datacenter operators to monetize what are seen as underutilized assets.

"We have this battery asset in the datacenter that is just sitting there," said Microsoft's vice president for its datacenter advanced development group, Christian Belady. "Why don't we offer it to the grid and come up with a dynamic way of managing it as a dual-purpose asset and thus drive more efficiency and asset utilization?"

One answer to that question is that the energy storage system is there to ensure the IT infrastructure in the datacenter does not lose power if there is a disruption to the supply from the energy grid, or to at least provide time for a graceful shutdown. A scheme such as this could jeopardize the datacenter's own ability to cope with such incidents.

However, in a report published by research firm Omdia earlier this year, many datacenter operators said they were satisfied that they had more than enough capacity to cope. In fact, 80 percent of respondents to its survey estimated that between 10 and 50 percent of the capacity of the battery systems deployed in their datacenter were excess to requirement and could be used for applications such as supporting the electricity grid.

Microsoft said it is working with Ireland's electricity grid operator EirGrid, which runs a market for grid services that prioritizes "non-carbon-emitting solutions." However, it is participating in this market through Enel X, an energy services provider that is apparently acting as an aggregator to combine industrial and commercial organizations like Microsoft into "virtual power plants" on the grid.

All of this is made possible thanks to new technologies, such as UPS systems with lithium-ion battery technology rather than traditional lead-acid batteries. It also requires intelligent UPS systems that are able to interact with the energy grid as well as the datacenter's energy management systems to co-ordinate the flow of power.

EirGrid's market for grid services is a blueprint for how technologies such as grid-interactive UPS systems at datacenters and other industrial facilities can help decarbonize electric power grids around the world, according to Enel X.

Microsoft said that if grid-interactive UPS systems replace the grid services currently provided by fossil fuel power plants in Ireland, it would cut carbon dioxide emissions by two million metric tons. This is about 20 percent of the total emissions that Ireland's power sector would otherwise be expected to produce in 2025. ®

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