Texas Data Centers Stayed Online During Statewide Power Loss, And They're Ready To Help Next Time
Texas' infrastructure was shown to be woefully unprepared this week when a historic winter storm forced the state energy grid to shed capacity, leaving millions of Texans without power for days. But one real estate segment was left largely untouched by the disaster.
Everyone else may have something to learn from data centers, and these facilities could even be tapped to help with any future capacity issues.
During the systemwide disruption, data centers watched millions of dollars of investment pay off as backup generators and protocols established before the storm kicked in across Texas.
“We invest $10M per megawatt specifically for these days,” DataBank CEO Raul Martynek said of the eight facilities he has across Texas. “The rest of the year when it's not being used, it can seem like a real waste of money, but ultimately that's why we are doing this because of these one or two events.”
All three major Texas data center operators Bisnow spoke to — DataBank, Evoque and Skybox Datacenters — reported no data center failures in Texas this week, largely because they were prepared with redundancies even if they were taken off the statewide grid.
Data centers have a type of backup battery that kicks in when utility energy is cut off, and this system keeps everything going until the generators take over, Skybox Datacenters Chief Development Officer Haynes Strader said.
As long as backup generators have an ongoing supply of fuel, they can carry a data center's energy load without the help of utility power, Strader said.
“That's why you spend an exorbitant amount of money building these data centers with all of these redundancies, so you can survive something you didn't plan for,” Strader added.
While Strader and Martynek saw all of their systems succeed and have heard mostly positive stories across the Texas data center space, at least two Texas data centers did go down for some time. An unnamed Dallas-based data center that supports health insurance provider Medi-Cal went offline during the inclement weather, causing frustration in California. And in Austin, the city data center reportedly lost power.
But with data centers mostly self-sufficient during the storm, operators found themselves more stressed about infrastructure issues well beyond their control. Some Texas operators fretted about whether icy, untreated roadways would hinder employees' ability to make safe passage to the data centers to refuel their backup generators.
“It would be great if the roads were a little clearer,” Martynek said. “It is a bit of a challenge for our employees. I'm at DFW1, which is our downtown data center, and the roads are to where it looks like Alaska here. You can't see the roads. You are driving on snow and half the street lights don't work.”
Martynek and Strader steered away from discussing what state or local officials should do to safeguard critical infrastructure during severe weather events, but roadway conditions are an area of top concern for big data.
“The challenge with an event like this week is that we've had bad road conditions and ongoing power outages for a long period of time, so those generators need to be refueled,” Strader said. “Many data centers have good fuel contracts where they are able to get fuel trucks in there, but if you have only one point of ingress and egress, and there are challenges on the roads, it can be hard to get trucks in.”
Data centers could be tapped to help in future winter storms or power crises, especially via agreements in which data centers agree to move capacity loads to generators during emergencies, allowing energy output to be transferred back to the public grid.
Evoque Data Center Solution told Bisnow it did just that, helping the Texas power grid reclaim a little bit of energy during the mass outages by voluntarily using its own backup generators.
“[As] a commitment to the communities we serve, we chose to power our Allen data center by generator for 15 hours, returning multiple megawatts of power back to the grid. Our clients saw no interruption in uptime during that time,” Evoque said in an email.
The process is called power shedding, Martynek explained. And he's already seen successful agreements created in the U.S. where data centers agree to rely on their own generators during emergency situations in exchange for better rates. One such method is a state program called Load Demand Response, in which data center providers can take a lower power rate in exchange for going to generator power when there are emergencies.
“There are some of those programs today, but I think they could be bolstered and expanded,” Strader said.
In addition to power shedding agreements, Strader sees room for state and local leaders to craft incentive deals that allow data centers to better utilize their own facilities and tools to help municipalities.
“The same thing could apply ... whether that's having a snowplow on-site that is available for city use in emergencies, or whether that's having salt storage [for salt trucks],” he said. “I think there are creative ways we can make it a win-win situation between the state of Texas and the companies investing in the state for their own use.”