The energy vampires sucking the UK’s grid dry

The energy vampires sucking the UK’s grid dry

The energy vampires sucking the UK's grid dry – Ruby Martin for The Telegraph

The energy vampires sucking the UK’s grid dry – Ruby Martin for The Telegraph

Housing shortages in London and the South East have long been one of the government’s biggest problems.

However, the much-needed fresh supply in west London is unlikely to materialize anytime soon, after developers were told last week they may be prevented from launching new projects in the area until 2035 due to grid exhaustion.

But it’s not just the tightening of energy supplies amid the war in Ukraine that is behind the de facto ban – rising demand for data centers is sucking the UK electricity grid dry.

These warehouse-sized buildings full of computer servers absorb so much electricity that the Greater London Authority (GLA) told developers it could be more than a decade before new developments in Hillingdon, Ealing and Hounslow can be sustained by the electricity grid.

Much of the problem boils down to the commercial success of the M4’s “Silicon Corridor”. As technology and finance companies compete for office space near the data centers that power their businesses, demand inevitably leads to greater supply.

About half of the estimated 200 UK data centers are located in the south east of England, with a large proportion concentrated in the area between Reading and Ealing.

SSE, the electricity distribution system operator for West London and Slough, estimates that a typical data center campus requires 50 megavolt-amperes (MvA), which is the electricity demand to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes.

With around a dozen planning applications pending for new data centers across the region, the enormous power demands of these data centers need to be looked at more closely.

In Ealing, for example, seven applications for the construction of new data centers are currently before the planning inspectors.

A memo sent to developers by the GLA this month and seen by The Telegraph said planning applications for data centers are blocking new housing developments until 2035.

It states: “Over the past two years, distribution system operator SSEN in West London has seen the same volume of new requests for data center connectivity as the region’s entire electricity needs.”

Parts of the Southeast may not receive new homes until 2035

Parts of the Southeast may not receive new homes until 2035

Get into remote work

According to sources, authorities have largely operated a first-come, first-served system for allocating electricity needs. But a surge in remote working since the pandemic has helped drive demand for computing and connectivity — and the electricity that goes with it — meaning the current system is no longer fit for purpose.

A spokesman for the Energy Networks Association described west London’s woes as “an isolated circumstance caused by a rapid and concentrated expansion in demand from local data center growth that is far in excess of forecast”.

But the power supply problems are not limited to the three districts highlighted by the GLA. They extend further west into the Thames Valley and stretch as far north as Reading.

Tech companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Dell and Huawei all have their bases here, in part due to the nearby transatlantic data cables serving London. These broadly follow the M4 and companies along their route are keen to tap into these trade channels and soak up the energy of the grid.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that data centers at 200 to 250 terawatt hours account for about 1 percent of the world’s electricity consumption, with demand growing “exponentially”.

Inextricably linked to the power consumption of data centers is the power consumption of data transmission networks, the fiber optic nerves and arteries of today’s digital economy. While the energy intensity of these grids has halved every two years since the millennium, according to the IEA, they still account for up to 1.4 percent of global electricity demand.

That means data centers in areas like West London are drinking electricity – and their insatiable thirst is causing a local drought.

A two meter high rack in a data center holds up to 42 servers and consumes around six to eight kilowatts (kW) of electricity. A typical data center can contain a few thousand racks, which means that a building the size of an industrial area can contain anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million servers, depending on the internal layout.

Read data center

Read data center

Shutting down the energy demand

Powering the servers is only part of the data center electrical equation. Intense calculations required for artificial intelligence (AI) or corporate IT work generate heat.

Cooling fans must be installed to dissipate this heat, and with such a large number of servers in such a small space, data centers require large and powerful industrial air conditioning units to prevent a literal meltdown. About 40 percent of the power consumption of a typical data center is used to run the air conditioning system.

Given these numbers, it’s easy to understand how data centers such as data center operator Virtus’ London 2 facility in Hayes, Hillingdon, must draw up to 12.2 megawatts (MW) from the National Grid.

Slough, on the border between Hounslow and Hillingdon, is home to half a dozen such public data centers, as well as a number of single user sites operated by major technology companies. Nearby Heathrow Airport has at least two public data centers and a significant number of private data centers nearby serving airlines and the travel industry. British Airways has two data centers near Heathrow that support the airline’s operations and provide backups in the event of outages.

Steps are being taken to reduce data center power requirements.

Craig Melson, associate director for sustainability at TechUK, said the industry is working on initiatives like the Open Compute Project, a Facebook-led program to redesign servers so they use less energy.

Meanwhile, Economy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng has promised a partial solution by next year, saying energy regulator Ofgem has “decided to change the framework for connection charges from April 2023, which would reduce connection costs for the necessary housing developers [electricity] Network reinforcement to accommodate their connections.”

Ultimately, the answer lies in power generation and distribution capacity, combined with political pragmatism that allows smaller new developments to skip the construction and equipping of data centers.

While data centers can be vital to modern business and technology-dependent lifestyles, their huge electrical needs add another hurdle to solving the UK housing crisis.

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