May 1, 2022

Using Combined Heat and Power for Data Center Resiliency

Using Combined Heat and Power for Data Center Resiliency

Combined heat and power (CHP) offers a great opportunity to save money, decrease energy costs, and boost the resilience of critical infrastructure. With the energy landscape currently in flux, and more facilities managers looking to improve data resilience and decrease carbon emissions, the global demand for CHP is growing.

An incredible 72% of CHP capacity in the United States currently is fueled by natural gas and there are many opportunities to use CHP at critical infrastructure sites as a reliable and resilient energy source.

What is CHP?

CHP, or combined heat and power, is an efficient and highly resilient approach to generating electrical and thermal energy.

CHP provides concurrent power and thermal energy from a single source, also known as a “prime mover.” Prime movers can be things like turbines or reciprocating engines. Wasted heat from the prime mover is recovered by heat exchangers, converted to steam, and then used for cooling with steam driven chillers or alternately, absorption chillers. CHP can also be used for hot thermal applications, including domestic hot water and high-pressure steam for industrial processes.

CHP has been used for decades, as building owners have for many years recognized how the approach leads to savings and other energy efficiency benefits. It’s an incredibly efficient solution for manufacturers and data centers.

Beyond the cost savings, much of CHP’s value has to do with resiliency. When a power grid goes down, combined heat and power can keep the lights on for data centers and manufacturers. With natural disasters like hurricanes and floods on the rise, the question isn’t whether a power grid will go down, but when.

Who uses CHP?

CHP makes up approximately 8% of generating capacity in the United States. The majority of that installed capacity is within the manufacturing sector. However, significant growth is also taking place in other non-traditional sectors, including data centers.

Whether CHP is a good fit for a facility depends on a few factors, such as:

  • Operational characteristics
  • Fuel type
  • Financial considerations
  • Geographic location

CHP makes the most sense at facilities with a constant thermal load, and when higher energy prices are in effect. It is compatible with a number of fuel types, including natural gas, biomass, biogas, and landfill gas. Of those types, natural gas is by far the most common.

Investing in CHP for Data Center Resilience

Data center resilience is the ability to recover quickly and continue operating during power outages, equipment failure, and other disruption. It is the combination of reliability and availability. How often does a system suffer during an outage? How much power and cooling is available for IT operations?

Presently, CHP is the most cost effective solution for data center sustainability and data center resiliency. As state and local utility companies increase the financial incentives for investing in CHP, interest among data center operators has grown. A number of federal tax credits are now available, as well.

The number of CHP annual installations in the U.S. has nearly doubled in the past decade, from an average of 76 per year to more than 140 per year today. This growth is unsurprising, given that the number of natural disasters occuring throughout the United States has also been on the rise. Severe weather events, such as hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires, are leading more data center operators to consider CHP as a solution for increased resiliency and data center sustainability.

When widespread power outages occur as a result of a wildfire or a hurricane, data centers with CHP in place can continue to operate as normal. CHP is much more reliable than on-site generators and back-up diesel generators, which may not operate for more than a period of hours or days due to limited fuel supplies.

CHP for Resiliency

When CHP systems are designed appropriately, facilities such as data centers can disconnect from the power grid entirely and continue to operate as normal. To work in this way, CHP systems must have black-start capabilities. They must also have the necessary switchgear controls to operate in parallel with the grid.

While the cost of installing this type of comprehensive CHP system varies based on site size, design, and geographic conditions, most operators find that minimizing the chances of power outages—and therefore decreasing the safety risks and financial costs that come with taking a data center offline for an extended period of time—is worth the cost.

Storms aren’t the only emergency that can knock down a traditional electrical system. Overloads and security breaches have also caused power grids to go offline — an issue that is particularly troubling for organizations focused on critical infrastructure and healthcare. As essential public safety services, hospitals and data centers cannot afford any major disruptions. Given that CHP has the ability to produce heat and power from a single fuel source, these systems have become the first choice for data centers, hospitals, and other facilities that require round-the-clock operations.

Case Study: University of Texas Medical Branch

Given its coastal location in Galveston, Texas, it should come as no surprise that the University of Texas Medical Branch has been forced to consider its contingency plans in cases of natural disaster. In an effort to minimize the impact of widespread power outages during a hurricane, the university designed a CHP system that could withstand storm surges and other physical damages.

UTMB installed two 7.5 MW CHP plants 18 feet above ground level as a protection against potential storm surges. These plants are designed to operate in “island mode” during natural disasters that could take down other power grids.

KMB: Experience You Can Trust

KMB has experience building the most advanced CHP systems in North America. Contact our experts today to learn more about how we are using efficient technology to increase resiliency at America’s biggest data centers and energy facilities.