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Evolving edge requires nuanced approach to backup power

Evolving edge requires nuanced approach to backup power

By Brad Luyster, Director of Business Development – Energy Storage at Vertiv.

We are at least five years into what can best be described as a mass migration to the edge of the network, and fundamental questions remain about how to sustain large, long-term IT deployments outside traditional data center environments. The need to move computing closer to the end user is driving this growth, but there are complications inherent in edge-dominated network architectures.

For one, when we think of “edge” we tend to picture remote sites, rural locations, and small computer rooms tucked in doctor’s offices and grocery stores. This is part of the edge story, but it is an incomplete picture. The edge exists to deliver computing to end users – and end users exist in greater quantities in population centers. The difference between rural edge and urban edge matters for a variety of reasons – from real estate availability to site-specific power architectures.

For example, those remote sites in rural locales are more susceptible to longer-duration power outages, at least in part due to logistical delays in servicing those sites. In most cases, a backup generator is needed to support extended off-grid operation. Locations closer to population centers face different challenges, less about extended outages and more to do with short-term coverage and the cumulative effect of multiple momentary outages – as well as concerns about footprint and site sustainability.

The power profiles are different, so it makes sense to approach backup power with the specific needs of the site in mind.

Off-Grid applications

Remote edge sites or sites with unreliable utility power must build a power infrastructure capable of sustained off-grid operation. Historically, that means a generator, but generators introduce challenges. The logistics of fueling and maintaining diesel generators can be complicated and expensive. They often sit unused for months on end, meaning fuel must be replaced to ensure proper operation when needed. More problematically today and going forward, generators (and their upkeep) create greenhouse gas emissions that run afoul of organizational sustainability goals.

Alternative approaches are emerging. New battery technologies – lithium-ion being the lead among them – allow for more sophisticated backup power architectures, working in concert with the grid and alternative energy sources to provide the power needed. Battery energy storage systems (BESS) can support extended runtime demands by shifting to battery when necessary and for longer durations, with alternative energy sources, such as solar, charging the BESS batteries instead of using utility power – working together as a microgrid. These systems can minimize generator use and allow organizations to downsize their generators, reducing their environmental impact, and avoiding grid power during times that it may be unreliable or expensive.

Hydrogen fuel cells may also be used to charge the BESS batteries and can offer additional flexibility. Fuel cells can supply long-term off-grid power with minimal upkeep and without producing environmentally corrosive emissions. Fuel cells paired with a BESS can deliver a flexible and reliable alternative to the traditional generator-centered power architecture.

On-Grid applications

A BESS is a strong option when utility power is reliable and interruptions are brief. The batteries can provide a suitable bridge until power from the grid is restored. The physical footprint and weight of traditional lead acid batteries used to be an impediment to larger deployments in urban areas where real estate is limited, but those issues are less troublesome with smaller, lighter lithium-ion batteries.

Using battery backup instead of generators has the benefit of reducing noise – and that matters as in populated areas as cities push to reduce the din and more people crowd into tight spaces. Fuel cells, likewise, offer quiet operation and a reasonable footprint.

Highly populated areas present other challenges that aren’t as common elsewhere. They attract events and crowds and computing demands in different locations – concerts, sporting events, trade shows, civic protests – putting a premium on the mobility of infrastructure systems. A BESS is smaller, lighter, and far more portable than a diesel generator. Storefronts open and close. A BESS can move with a retailer.

Of course, wherever these systems are deployed, reducing reliance on a generator reduces greenhouse gas emissions. That’s important anywhere.

Bottom line

The edge of the network continues to evolve to meet modern needs, and the infrastructure required to power edge deployments must evolve in kind. Increasingly, that means finding ways to decrease the reliance on carbon-producing diesel generators and leveraging new technologies – such as lithium-ion batteries, battery energy storage systems and hydrogen fuel cells – to provide more reliable, sustainable backup power.

About the author

Brad Luyster is Director of Business Development – Energy Storage at Vertiv.

DISCLAIMER: Guest posts are submitted content. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Edge Industry Review (EdgeIR.com).

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