CEO of UK's National Grid warns of datacenters' thirst for power

Predicts 500 percent increase in consumption over a decade and suggests 800 kilovolt fix

John Pettigrew, the CEO of Britain's National Grid, warned on Tuesday that datacenter power consumption is on track to grow 500 percent over the next decade.

In a speech delivered to the Aurora Forum in Oxford, Pettigrew mentioned growing demand for energy to power datacenters, alongside increased adoption of electric cars and heat pumps.

The CEO observed that the UK's energy industry has reached a "pivotal moment … that requires innovative thinking and bold actions to create a transmission network for tomorrow's future."

He expressed fear that incremental change may not do the job.

"Do we also need to take a collective step back, and consider whether there are alternative long-term approaches to build a grid that is fit not just for the next 20 years, but for the next 60?" he asked.

He didn't answer the rhetorical question, but did suggest "One approach we think has potential is the construction of an ultra-high voltage onshore transmission network of up to 800 thousand volts."

Pettigrew supposed that this new network "would be superimposed on the existing supergrid – a super-supergrid if you like" and would "enable bulk power transfers around the country, with strategically located ultra-high capacity substations, supporting the connection of big energy sources to big demand centers via the new network."

It would also create spare capacity that would "open up opportunities for economic growth that could otherwise be constrained by a transmission network that is essentially reaching capacity."

Pettigrew mentioned AI and the datacenters that deliver it as among the economic opportunities a better energy grid could help to realize.

The CEO is not alone in predicting that datacenters will soon gobble more energy.

According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report from January, global datacenter energy consumption is expected to double by 2026. And if OpenAI CEO Sam Altman's recent comments are anything to go by, that estimate may be conservative.

Last northern Spring, a survey of 700 datacenter professionals across Europe found that access to cheap, reliable power was among their top concerns. Another report estimated that, within two years, datacenters would account for a third of Ireland's electrical consumption.

In fact, in order to ensure a steady supply of uninterrupted power, Microsoft has gone as far as to build a 170 megawatt gas power plant to keep its €900 million ($975 million) datacenter development outside Dublin up and running. According to Microsoft, the plant is designed to provide backup power and only operates when the national electrical grid is constrained or experiences an outage.

Meanwhile, in the US, e-commerce giant Amazon recently paid $650 million to acquire a nuclear-powered datacenter in Pennsylvania. ®

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