Energy hurdle won't stop SA data centre growth

Load-shedding is the single biggest challenge for data centres in SA, given how power-hungry they are, but demand has not slowed.
Gerrit Barnard
Gerrit Barnard

Increased load-shedding and power price hikes are among the top challenges facing data centre operators in South Africa today.

However, despite growing challenges, data centre growth will continue, driven by increasing demand for capacity, new opportunities and innovative problem-solving by operators (decentralised risk).

Load-shedding is the single biggest challenge for data centres in SA, given how power-hungry they are, and the high cost of backup and alternative power, such as generators. Due to this challenge, we have seen a number of big capex projects being put on hold.

However, demand for data centre capacity has not slowed, which means data centre operators are moving to address the power problem using new models and emerging power generation and storage technologies.

In a residential home or ordinary office environment, the average power requirement might be in the region of 50W a square metre. Data centres require around 10 times this figure.

In tier three and four data centres, generator capacity plays a big role in power resilience stability, and this comes at a significant cost. We have clients generating 10MW to 20MW on site daily, mostly with diesel generators. Because of the high cost of fuel, this is making power generation very expensive.

Solar power is only part of the solution, but it is not the complete solution to the problem. Around 16 hectares or more of solar panels would be needed to run one average data centre.

This means a data centre located in a metro or suburban area would have to cover an entire suburb with solar panels to meet its generation needs. Not to mention storage capacity requirements.

There are also other challenges and compliance issues to be addressed when building power generation capacity. For example, diesel storage capacity on some is capped at 60 000-litres per generator and there are strict safety regulations to comply with. Hydrogen requires big and bulky high-pressure storage tanks and is equally strictly controlled.

Fortunately, power is not a uniquely South African challenge. Global enterprises looking to greener, renewable energy are similarly invested in finding more innovative and advanced renewable power solutions.

In future, I envisage data centres harnessing hybrid power generation capacity.

Therefore, more efficient and advanced generation and storage technologies are constantly coming to market. In future, I envisage data centres harnessing hybrid power generation capacity, including wind, solar and hydrogen power, and more efficient and cost-effective storage technologies.

One emerging technology showing great promise is sodium phosphate batteries. The advantage of these is they are not heavy metal and are more environmentally-friendly.

Currently, their energy density is not quite the same as lithium, therefore around 30% more capacity and space would be needed when using sodium batteries. However, they are reliable, pose no fire hazard and cost as much as 50% less than lithium batteries.

For data centre operators, there is an opportunity to architect an optimal mix of renewable and backup power to ensure reliability without adding excessive cost.

Power, redundancy opportunities

One option for data centre operators and their supplier ecosystems is to generate power at solar farms outside of major metros and build data centres there.

This is not a simple matter, since the geographic positioning of a data centre plays an important role in operational and cooling costs.

In Gauteng and coastal regions such as the Western Cape, the average temperature is 12⁰C to 24⁰C, which is ideal for a data centre. This is why South Africa has around 50% of its data centres in Gauteng, around 40% in the Cape Town area, and the remaining 10% around the country.

As Gauteng runs out of power and space, there may be a migration to other areas. However, a region such as the Karoo − despite its abundance of sun to power solar farms − has temperature fluctuations too great to be ideal for cooling systems. Areas such as SA's west coast, thanks to its average temperatures and available space, can be a viable area.

Another area for development is the emergence of edge data centres around major metros. These data centres, initially driven by demand in the gaming industry to reduce latency for end-users, now offer a credible solution to supplement data centre capacity in SA's urban areas.

In the next phase of data centre growth, I expect to see small containerised, or kiosk-style data centres placed in neighbourhoods to supplement enterprise data centres. Use cases for these include water and power metering for specific areas, with backup to the main data centre at regular intervals.

Growth into neighbouring countries remains an important opportunity for South African data centres. SA has traditionally been a stepping stone into Africa for global companies, and in the data centre space, this is still the case.

SA has a mature data centre market and has built extensive data centre capacity and skills, which make the country a good base for expansion across borders into neighbouring countries. Sub-Saharan growth will be a key opportunity for South African data centre operators.

Gerrit Barnard

divisional executive, data centre and project management, Interconnect Systems.

Gerrit Barnard is divisional executive, data centre and project management, Interconnect Systems.

He entered the cabling industry in in 1994 as a cabling technician. Since then, Barnard has amassed a wealth of skills and knowledge in a broad spectrum of the technology arena, including project management, data centre project management, infrastructure architecture, sales, installation, operational management and key accounts management.

Barnard is a divisional executive at Interconnect Systems, a shareholder in the business and a member of the executive management team. He is responsible for leading the project management team and heads up Data Centre Project Manager Infrastructure Solutions plus the Interconnect Service Desk.

He assesses local market conditions, identifies current and prospective sales opportunities, and manages forecasts, financial objectives and business plans. He also develops and implements sales and profitability plans according to customer management principles that ensure the development and maintenance of key accounts.

He participates actively in business and industry organisations to build a network of contacts, and works with customers, colleagues and contractors towards continual improvement of the management system through adherence to industry standards, as well as regulations pertaining to products and services.

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