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The 24/7 Power Era: Making Secondary Power Primary


By Jim Romeo | Feb 15, 2017
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Everything came to a sudden halt for JetBlue on Jan. 14, 2016. Its website crashed. Passengers became irate. Long lines formed. Some 200 flights were delayed. This nightmare began when JetBlue’s data center lost power and did not have a responsive backup network. The company’s data was not available in the unforgiving business of airline travel.


It could happen again. Everything seems to have gone digital. Our world’s dependence on data access, at anytime, anywhere, is driving demand for a no-risk power grid that won’t ever go down, not even for a minute.


Data centers have server stacks that process data for critical industries and need to ensure they are never without power. Hospitals rely on electronic records and information 24/7, plus their critical medical systems always demand a robust backup-power network. Financial institutions can’t be without power when global markets operate around the clock, and the steady feed of digital information can tolerate no interruption.


For healthcare companies, medical records and data governed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, data keepers are required to manage their facilities, per the Health and Human Services Administration, to “enable continuation of critical business processes” during emergency mode to ensure the security of such data.


A growing demand for uninterrupted power has shaped a new paradigm for backup power: the internal microgrid.


Open Access Technology International is a Minneapolis-based software and cloud-computing provider. Its new facility doesn’t just have backup power. Instead, it has a microgrid consisting of solar panels, wind turbines, a power plant and energy-storage devices. Combined, the equipment forms the company’s microgrid, which is both primary and secondary power.


While the firm has many customers in the power industry and is partially using its building as a showcase for its software services, Open Access Technology also wants to show its affinity for smart and creative ways to manage power in a world that has become dependent on it.


Sean James is a senior research program manager with Microsoft Cloud Infrastructure and Operations. In his blog, he wrote that the company is continuously looking at creative new ways to approach power for its data centers. Gone are the days where diesel generators were the only expected source of backup power. Now, at a minimum, backup power is going green. 


In Microsoft’s case, it used clean natural gas generators. The company wanted to take it one step further and make what was once backup a more central source of power.


“Rather than thinking of the generators and batteries inside data centers as infrastructure we hope we never have to use, we’ve been researching how we—or others on the grid—can also use them in times of peak demand,” James writes. “As more renewables come onto the grid, utilities are already exploring backup power options—what if we offered the use of these existing resources, instead of having utilities construct new backup power systems?”


This may introduce a new symbiosis between facilities and electric utilities. Peak-loading is always a challenge to utilities during, say, heat waves in a warm climate where demand has spiked and only so many megawatts are available. Utilities must meet the load, and they are forced to purchase available power for their grid or sometimes use gas turbine generators to meet demand quickly; this latter option is costly and not preferred by utilities.


Suppose, instead, that facilities use their backup power during peak loads and get a significant discount for doing so. They’re happy and so is the utility that has to provide less peak power.


Akin to this way of thinking is a surge of interest and innovation in utility-scale energy-storage technology. This includes sophisticated batteries and storage banks charged by sustainable sources, such as wind and solar, and drawn on during peak load.


“An important consideration is how readily the facility can transition between the grid and its own backup power,” said Zolaikha Strong, director of sustainable energy for the Copper Development Association. “Total system cost and plans for using renewables are factors too. Economics favors greater use of power storage as costs come down and the technology advances.”


Backup power and the technology that supports it has advanced and will continue to do so. Still, old and new technology can fail, leaving an enterprise’s operations at risk as it did for JetBlue. 


It also happened at an outpatient surgery unit in Cleveland, when a dermatologist was removing skin lesions from a patient. The bitter Cleveland winter caused an intermittent power outage that lasted an unusually long time. The surgeon was forced to complete the procedure by cell phone light.


Whether it’s grounding a Jet Blue fleet, or impeding the progress of surgery, backup power and technology doesn’t always work—but it should. Today, more than ever before, the world demands backup-power solutions for safety and for economy. Electrical contractors may become the next big critical link in the power equation in preventing any loss of power or data access.


About The Author

ROMEO is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He focuses on business and technology topics. Find him at www.JimRomeo.net.

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