Revealed: the six trends we’ll see in the data center sector in 2023

Sustainability and climate change are the overarching themes as data centers look to operate more efficiently and with a positive impact on the environment.

Sustainability and climate change will be the trends most influencing the data center industry in 2023, according to ABB, which provides power solutions to the sector. The company has compiled its key trends to watch for over the coming year:

1. Modular and offsite builds – the cost effective and fast way to scale up capacity

Global demand for data continues to grow, with research suggesting that the amount of data created, consumed and stored in 2023 is will reach 120 zettabytes (ZB). To keep pace, data center operators will be looking for ways to ‘compress the program’ so that additional capacity is brought online sooner. This means a renewed focus on offsite manufacturing and standardized modular build solutions as these offer the power to scale quickly and in a cost-effective way. 

Modular electrification solutions use standard blocks of power which can be added to as a data center expands, making them a flexible choice for sites in growth. Using prefabricated and predesigned solutions like eHouses and skids are cost and time effective, helping to reduce build completion time by as much as 50 percent. 

2. Maximizing renewable power with battery storage 

Sustainable power will be key for data centers in 2023 and we will see greater take up of enabling technologies such as battery energy storage systems (BESS), which are becoming more mainstream. BESS allow data centers to store renewable energy generated on site (from solar PV panels or a wind turbine) to be used when its most needed. 

Add Artificial Intelligence to battery storage and operators can use data acquisition, prediction, simulation, and optimization to automatically charge and discharge the battery to make it even more effective and efficient, and prolong its life cycle. 

BESS is also being hailed as a sustainable alternative to diesel gensets as currently, generators can’t be run on hydrogen. Planning ahead will be key, as longer lead times for battery storage systems should be expected with demand high and rising. 

3. Giving back to the grid

Another trend we expect to see this year is data centers becoming more active players in the power ecosystem, by doing more to support the electricity grids they rely on. 

One way for data centers to be prosumers as well as consumers, is to utilize their uninterruptible power supply (UPS) battery storage capacity to provide frequency balancing services. Simply fit Frequency Regulation Functionality (FRF) to the UPS and this allows the grid to tap into a data center’s unused reserves of power to respond to varying load demands and maintain frequency levels thus reducing the risk of blackouts.

4. Supporting local homes and businesses 

This year we expect to see more data centers exploring projects and technologies which allow them to to utilize their heat waste. 

For example, data centers generate large amounts of excess heat. Although it is low grade heat, it can be piped to a heat pump plant and used for district heating. This year, a project to take excess heat from Meta’s Tietgenbyen data center in Denmark will go live, providing heat to more than 12,000 homes in the nearby city of Odense.

For data centers in more remote locations where this may not be possible, heat waste could be used to provide heat for nearby industrial applications such as commercial greenhouses.

5. Evolving data center designs to cope with extreme heat

Last year’s extreme temperatures - which caused shut downs for both Google and Oracle in the UK - have prompted many data center operators to review their cooling strategies ahead of summer 2023. 

Extreme heat stresses cooling systems by making components, such as compressors, pumps and fans, work harder than usual, which increases the likelihood of failures. Right sizing plant, appropriate back up power and a proper contingency plan for extreme heat can all be part of the solution.  

We are also coming closer to the tipping point for the transition to liquid cooling in data centers. This has been standardised by big names such as 3M and it allows greater rack density than ever before (up to 500kW). With greater cooling capacity achievable, it could provide a significantly more reliable and energy efficient solution compared to mechanical cooling which currently accounts for around a third of energy use in a data center.

6. Cost optimization – generating long term savings and benefits

Cost optimization allows operators to manage and, in some cases, extend the life cycle of key plant, while helping to meet energy and carbon reduction targets and avoiding unnecessary downtime.

Cost optimization can be carried out for all major equipment in a data center facility. For example, with digital energy management tools, you can easily see what is performing at its optimum and what equipment is not operating efficiently and may be in need of repair or replacement. Even a one percent improvement in the battery efficiency of a UPS will reap significant cost benefits over its 10-year lifecycle. 

Danel Turk, ABB Solution Portfolio Manager for Data Centers, said: “This year will mark a change in direction for many of our data center customers as global trends influence their priorities. Many have operated in ‘island mode’ in the past, but this must change as we move into a critical period in the fight against climate change. Energy and cost efficiencies are a must, new technologies are a must, and engaging with the community is a must – whether that’s through finding uses for waste heat or providing balancing services to aid the energy transition.

“Demand for data is only going one way, and with more electric vehicles on the road, the rollout of 5G improving latency and the growing use of AI and machine learning, data center capacity needs to be there to facilitate our electrified world. Growth in the data center sector must be sustainable and have a positive impact in the communities where facilities are located - this is certainly something we will see greater focus on this year.”

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