We’ve all seen the articles in the mainstream media about AI and the surge of demand it creates for data centers on the utility grid. AI has dramatically taken over the conversation among data centers and operators in the last year, whereas just a few years ago, sustainability was all the rage. Rightfully so, the conversation needs to shift to address AI and the coming 'perfect storm' of power equilibrium, while still keeping sustainability in mind.

The increased power demand from AI-driven data centers, combined with the intermittency of renewable energy generation, rising natural disasters from climate change, the addition of electric vehicle charging to the grid, and the electrification of daily life, is putting immense strain on power balance. In an ideal world, power consumption must equal generation to achieve equilibrium. However, our imperfect actions are driving an imbalance in electricity power.

Many media articles conclude that there isn’t enough power currently being generated to support the ever-increasing demand, and we need to bring renewable generation online faster.

In some parts of the world, older fossil-fuel generation plants are coming back online to meet gaps in renewable generation. For instance, Reuters recently cited ERCOT needing to meet a 6 percent increase in peak summer demand from 2023 to 2024, potentially relying on fossil fuel sources, which could add another 75 million tons of emissions to the environment.

It’s overwhelming for data center operators to manage this power consumption with AI demand. A recent Forbes article stated that by 2030, data center power consumption is expected to reach 390TWh, or 7.5 percent of total electricity consumption in the USA, driven by the acceleration of AI. But what does all this hype mean for data centers? Operators must prepare for the unknown conditions ahead, ensuring reliability, safety, and sustainability without waiting for regulations to catch up.

In addition to adapting to more efficient power hardware components, preparation for the unknown involves using reliable and proven energy storage technologies that meet each center’s backup requirements, while balancing sustainability with extreme power demand.

Batteries are essential to keep data centers functional without power generation sources. Fortunately, technologies exist today, and more are on the way, to give data center operators peace of mind.

Some large hyperscale data centers use between 20-100MW of power, with individual server racks growing in power output, upwards of 75-100kW. The increasing heat generation from this extreme power output is driving the adoption of liquid cooling systems to prevent failure.

Additionally, high power demand, along with fluctuations in power supply, can lead to potential brownouts or blackouts. Proven battery technologies are essential for managing these power surges, capable of discharging high levels of amperage safely and quickly (within 30 seconds to 15 minutes) to provide reliable uptime power during peak demand intervals.

Technologies like valve-regulated lead-acid (VRLA) and other nickel-based chemistries can achieve this at minimal cost while being reliable and sustainable. Additionally, batteries capable of running beyond high power discharges (one hour and beyond) can bridge generation gaps using energy storage rather than power storage.

This capability is crucial as utility grid outages may become more frequent and longer. Long-duration storage batteries can reduce reliance on fossil-fuel generators, saving fuel costs and reducing emissions. They also offer environmental benefits and provide ancillary grid-interactive services, such as wholesale generation resale and demand energy response (DER).

Concepts once foreign to data center applications but widely accepted in energy storage systems (ESS) for utility-scale renewable energy are now becoming a reality worldwide. Technologies like lithium-ion and lead-carbon with cycling capabilities are available today to help address this issue.

As AI becomes more integrated into daily life and digital infrastructure, energy storage capacity and energy density must also scale to safeguard against the 'perfect storm'. According to the October 2023 report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the system average interruption duration index (SAIDI) for power outage events in the US increased from 227.2 minutes in 2013 to 333.0 in 2022, a 46 percent increase. This average duration of outages will likely continue to rise in future reports.

To end on a positive note, I am encouraged by the ongoing innovation in battery manufacturing, and amazed at the speed this industry has been moving forward over the last 10 years. Technologies like sodium ion, solid-state lithium-ion batteries, silica additives to lithium-ion technologies, bipolar lead-acid, and even conductive polymers.

If the battery industry can help data center operators ensure backup power generation, their focus can shift to using this power most effectively. Perhaps one day, AI will accurately predict when and where to use this power. The future may be closer than we think.