back to article UK government in talks with datacenter operators over blackouts

The UK government is reported to have held discussions with datacenter operators about keeping their infrastructure operating during possible power shortages this winter, amid growing concerns there could be blackouts if gas supplies run low. According to Bloomberg, the discussions focused on ensuring diesel fuel supplies for …

  1. Cederic Silver badge

    contingency planning

    It all sounds rather sensible to me. I'm doing some of that at home, although I've decided the ROI on a large battery for the house means it's not an I because there's no R.

    If only we'd planned and started building more nuclear power stations in the 90s, as we should :(

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: contingency planning

      If only we'd planned and started building more nuclear power stations in the 90s, as we should :(

      Had we done anything useful in the last decade in terms of building numerous non-gas generation sites that would have cost less than £60B, we would be better off now.

    2. Andy Non Silver badge

      Re: contingency planning

      "If only we'd planned and started building more nuclear power stations in the 90s, as we should"

      I remember seeing a documentary about this very issue twenty odd years ago, maybe on Panorama? How the UK was becoming increasingly dependent upon energy from overseas and how vulnerable it would leave our power supplies to problems in Europe, Russia and elsewhere. So the issues were well known but there has been no political will or foresight to prevent the unfolding mess.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: contingency planning

        I wonder how much things will just fail as we run out of supply in certain areas at certain times or if someone's going to bite the bullet and choose. Will we stop cars from charging? Will we shut off data centres as these should have backup generators and DR at other sites? Will we shutdown the Houses of Parliament of the basis that nothing useful happens there?

        1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
          Boffin

          Re: contingency planning

          I think the Houses of Parliament should be tapped as a communal source of heating - there seems to be an unlimited supply of hot air there

          1. Mishak Silver badge

            True

            But very little of it is green...

            1. JohnMurray

              Re: True

              No.

              But a lot of it is brown

      2. codejunky Silver badge

        Re: contingency planning

        @Andy Non

        "So the issues were well known but there has been no political will or foresight to prevent the unfolding mess."

        But the gov did plenty. Vast amounts spent on monuments to a sky god to save us. And we can always rely on cheep gas when the sky god is displeased with us.

        The govs did plenty, but not much of use.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: contingency planning

          @codejunky.

          If you are going to make a cheap shot at government0 (I am guilty of this) always make sure your spell correctly.... Cheep??

      3. VoiceOfTruth Silver badge

        Re: contingency planning

        We have no had an energy policy in the UK for over 30 years. Labour and the Tories (and Clegg - remember him? No, me neither) are all guilty of this. Leave it to the market, was the mantra. A bit like getting PPE and sanitising gel at the start of the covid fiasco. It works well until everybody wants the same thing.

        -> How the UK was becoming increasingly dependent upon energy from overseas

        When the Royal Navy converted from coal to gas this was a subject of crucial importance. We have at least 500 years of coal reserves in the UK, which means basically that supplies can be guaranteed. This is not the case with oil. This is not a new subject.

        Many of the politicians and their flag wavers in the press don't have an ounce of sense between them. I laughed so much when the Daily Mail published its "At last! A true Tory budget" front page waving a few weeks ago. Yeah. They are oafs. We nearly had a financial meltdown to ape the 1970s as a result. Don't expect too much from these highly-educated politicos. They are insulated from everyday life. I imagine that most of them does not know the price of a loaf of bread. But I bet they do know how to fill in their expenses forms in the most creative manner.

        1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

          Re: Don't expect too much from these highly-educated politicos.

          on both sides of the house. Far too many PPE grads who would not know what a real job is even if one hit them in the face.

          IMHO, Lawyers and PPE grads should be barred from becoming an MP unless they have worked in a non-legal or political business (inc lobbyists) for at least 10 years.

      4. Stuart Castle Silver badge

        Re: contingency planning

        I'd like to have seen better planning for failure. I think the problem is that previous governments have looked at the amount of land occupied by things like power stations and gas storage, and the fact they cost money to maintain and run, and thought "we can sell that to developers! Cha Ching!".

        We do need housing, true, but we also need adequate protection for our energy suppliers in the event of a major problem. We shouldn't be in the position where we are having to consider blackouts because two countries are at war, no matter who they are.

        Despite what I said elsewhere on this page, I think Nuclear is actually a good option, as long as the owners of the plants invest properly in staff, training, and the maintenance of the various systems in each plant, especially the safety systems.

      5. Kane

        Re: contingency planning

        "there has been no political will"

        The only political will that exists usually comes in unmarked brown envelopes.

        All the will money can buy.

      6. RegisterDeez

        Re: contingency planning

        The Gov hasn't a clue. Spend the last decade outsourcing energy and promoting electric cars then pull a surprised Pikachu face when we're can't get electricity anymore

        We shouldn't be preparing for blackouts so much as riots

    3. Potemkine! Silver badge

      Re: contingency planning

      If only we'd planned and started building more nuclear power stations in the 90s, as we should

      It's a collective failure, many countries face the same situation for the same reason.

      Politicians see till the next election, not till the next decade. Add to this that voters are often seduced by demagogic claims, and it's easy to use FUD with nuclear power.

      == Bring us Dabbsy back! ==

      1. VoiceOfTruth Silver badge

        Re: contingency planning

        -> It's a collective failure, many countries face the same situation for the same reason.

        A pretty damning and justified indictment of the neoliberal politics which pervades the West in general.

    4. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: contingency planning

      "I've decided the ROI on a large battery for the house means it's not an I because there's no R."

      Huh? The return is very significant savings on your power bill...

      1. Cederic Silver badge

        Re: contingency planning

        Not really. Even at current inflated prices, the saving in cost by filling the battery overnight and using it to power work devices during the day equates to around 18-20 years to cover the cost of buying the battery in the first place. Which won't last 18-20 years.

        Now factor in the time value of money..

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: contingency planning

          How about £1.00-£1.50 a day to run the house in winter? I'm not paying over £0.35/kWh because of the investment I made in the battery.

          £30-£40 per month rather than £200+ as some people are having to pay really does shorten the payback time.

          Do your ROI calcs include the increase in the price of your home because of the battery?

        2. John Robson Silver badge

          Re: contingency planning

          Taking a 9.5kWh battery, at just 85% efficiency...

          I use 9.5kWh at 7.5p to charge it - cost 71p - I then don't have to use (85% of 9.5kWh at 39.4p) £3.18 each day - that's £99 per month.

          You could suggest that I use a "normal" tariff as my "saving", I did... but even with the pre October prices (I was on a supplier of last resort tariff) the projected saving in terms of electricity using panels/battery is enough to finance the panels/battery (with the battery actually doing the heavy lifting). If I use the current "Energy company profit guarantee" rate then I expect to be paying substantially less for electricity and appropriate finance than I would be for electricity alone.

          My usage pattern actually favours the use of a time of day tariff anyway, so I'm comfortable using that direct comparison.

          Projected cost per kWh, inclusive of standing charge, goes from 35.9p to 9.6p.

          Ok, so how much does a 9.5kWh battery cost... About £6k installed, with a ten year unlimited cycles warranty.

          It's therefore paid for itself in less than half the warranty time, whilst also giving additional protection against power cuts and increasing the value of my property...

          Assume that it lasts 50% more than is warranted, and you have a 200% ROI in 15 years - or about 5% compounded annually.

          Of course it also enables full usage of a home solar array - and it helps if you have other reasons to be on a time of day tariff (like an EV, or a ZEB). But there are also other benefits (like power cut protection).

          There is the final point that not everything has to have an R, or be an I. You fit a new kitchen or bathroom, do you decide on an ROI, or do you get something you want, and like. Like a new kitchen/bathroom installing panels/battery systems has a direct positive impact on property value as well.

          Using solar/battery does more than just give you a financial return, it also improves the grid mix, and improves your energy resilience* (protected circuits).

          * I'm not going to be keeping my battery with a minimum fill level to cover any possible power cut, but I am protected in the likely event of power cuts any time up to the late evening this winter. I won't be running my oven/kettle/microwave, but that's what a gas hob is for. The boiler will have power, as will the fridge/freezer and my IT equipment (which will be behind it's own small UPS as well, to deal with the automated, but not seamless, hand over onto an isolated circuit).

          1. Cederic Silver badge

            Re: contingency planning

            Your maths don't match my usage. If I switched every single watt of electricity use from my day time rate to my night time rate it would save me £376.42 a year.

            At about £6k installed that gives me 16 years just to recover the up front cost, and that's assuming 100% efficiency and no day time electricity use.

            I don't think the battery will be providing 100% efficiency, especially not in 16 years' time.

            1. John Robson Silver badge

              Re: contingency planning

              Well clearly if you don't use 9kWh a day then you won't benefit from a 9kWh battery - That's hardly surprising is it?

              And clearly it depends on which tariff you have.

              "I don't think the battery will be providing 100% efficiency, especially not in 16 years' time."

              Well, my calculations were based off 85% RTE, which is a reasonable estimate for a battery with half decent battery management - and I stopped after 15 years. The likely behaviour is actually longer, but gently declining lifespan.

    5. DS999 Silver badge

      Re: contingency planning

      Isn't the 'R' in having a whole home battery the value you get from having power all the time? So it isn't true there's "no R", it is just that the 'R' isn't big enough for you and isn't likely to be even if there are a few more power cuts this winter than you might usually have.

      1. Cederic Silver badge

        Re: contingency planning

        Spending £5k or more to cover the risk I might need to enjoy going outside for a walk instead of sitting in front of a computer 2-3 times this winter might be justified if that risk was substantial. I don't perceive it to justify the expense.

        1. Missing Semicolon Silver badge

          Re: contingency planning

          Factor in the cost of the food in your freezer.

          1. Spazturtle Silver badge

            Re: contingency planning

            A freezer will stay frozen for more than 3 hours, fridges and freezers don't run constantly anyway, they spend most of their time idle waiting for the temperature to rise above a set point and then turn on their compressor to bring it down again.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: contingency planning

      I have 33kWh of battery at my home. Coupled with my EV tariff means that including charging the car for 500 miles of travel in September, my total electricity bill was £31.45. That includes all heat, light and cooking (no gas).

      The battery is easily able to run my home during the day in winter.

      The "R" in "ROI" is looking pretty good at the moment.

    7. Stuart Castle Silver badge

      Re: contingency planning

      RE: If only we'd planned and started building more nuclear power stations in the 90s, as we should :(

      I agree with you, but it's worth remembering that if something goes wrong with Nuclear power, we could be left with large chunks of our limited about of land rendered uninhabitable for decades.

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: contingency planning

        As opposed to everything going right with fossil fuels leaving the whole planet uninhabitable until we're extinct?

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: contingency planning

          As opposed to everything going right with fossil fuels leaving the whole planet uninhabitable until we're extinct?

          If the whole planet is uninhabitable, we'd already be extinct.

          What Ed Milliband did right (or left) was set us up for this failure with his glorious Climate Change Act. Build windmills. Fine, except when there's no wind. As often happens for days during winter when there's a high pressure system covering the UK and much of Europe. This also means cold weather. So when there's no wind, we need energy to keep windmills spinning and their blades from freezing up. The most convenient and cheapest solution was of course building gas turbines.

          For a while, this made sense because generating electricity from gas cost around 1/3rd the cost of generating via 'renewables'. By making sense, I mean that made sense to the likes of Ed Milliband. Much in the same way that burning forests is good for the environment, as Drax does.

          So energy policy, created by neo-luddites created a dependency on gas. Because we became more dependent on gas, we also imposed taxes and bans on UK gas exploration and production, because banning or regulating stuff is obviously the best way governments can increase supply, reduce costs etc.

          Then, because the world wasn't warming fast enough, our politicians decided to pursue a policy of 'Net Zero', which means zero energy price reductions or supply. I mean zero carbon. That kinda glosses over that most life on Earth evolved when CO2 levels were far higher than they are now, but warm is bad, and we must end warming immediately. Which politicians have actually managed to achieve, ie people will find it much harder to stay warm this winter, and subsequent winters.

          And of course much of the current crisis is because we weaponised energy. We, well, our political elite, decided the best punishment was to make it illegal to buy cheap oil and gas. This, of course fits with the 'Net Zero' doctrine of producing zero energy, which will lead to zero useful economic activity. We should thank our leaders for exceeding their target of zero GDP growth, without us really feeling the impact of zero transportation from EV mandates. It's been a briliiant decison from our leaders to increase demand for energy, whilst simultaneously reducing supply. And of course we should be thanking Putin for this because he's helped drive this. According to the Bbc, Russia weaponised energy because we pre-emptively sanctioned it's exports so we can save the planet or something.

          And in other news, GE's mulling exiting 'renewables' because they've noticed a few supply chain problems. Like windmills take a lot of energy to produce, and energy has been made more expensive by 'renewables' policy. Oops. Then of course there's more sanctions on China, who produce steel, wind turbines, solar panels etc.

  2. wyatt

    Great having a DC working but there may not be anyone who can connect to it! It'd be interesting to know what the maximum outages are that individual components such as networking nodes/switching kit/ engineers kettles can run for in a scenario such as this.

    Without having a crystal weather ball it's impossible to know if this will be an issue, whatever happens my priority will be my family.

    1. Lazlo Woodbine

      From experience in planning back-up supplies, the power from the generators is usually only supplied to certain circuits. So for instance CCTV keeps recording, but the monitors are not powered.

      This would mean kitchens would have no power.

      That's not to say the staff won't have hidden a kettle in a room that does have power, just in case...

      1. pbgben

        Ahh yes, the "device" plugged into the wrong circuit causing a fault that trips the whole backup power system because X was programmed incorrectly.

        Or, the steam sets off the vesda and cuts power to the building.

  3. Roger Greenwood

    Day tank + bulk storage

    Isn't that the way it's done? Day tank good for a few hours, very local to generator(s), re-filled from bulk storage in a more accessible location for the tanker. Bulk storage good for 7 days at full chat, anything else is not really a backup.

    Perhaps I have only ever dealt with folks who do it properly . . . .

    1. Peter Galbavy

      Re: Day tank + bulk storage

      I was going to ask much the same thing. Any DC I've worked with had 1 day on site and 7+ days on call from nearby plus prioritised contract for indefinite supply from further storage. Odd if this isn't the case any more.

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: Odd if this isn't the case any more

        Not really.

        Beancounters have been on the rise for the past twenty years.

        Why do you think there's a component shortage ? Because Just-In-Time delivery, which removed stock (which costs money), and beancounters are notoriously adverse to spending money.

        Well they're going to be real happy now.

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: Odd if this isn't the case any more

          Well they're going to be real happy now.

          Look on the bright side. They'll be able to closely monitor stock levels because their inventory system has been ported to the 'cloud'. They'll be able to provide real-time tracking to the C-team because the entire logistics system is in the 'cloud'. It's going to be interesting to watch what happens when 'clouds' go off-line, and how long it takes businesses to recover after their SAP, Oracle etc systems transition from steady-state to a mostly unknown state.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Day tank + bulk storage

      Only problem with this is that the crap they supply as diesel nowadays doesn't keep, so you can't afford to store it for very long, unless you start adding additives, and even then the time period is still fairly limited.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Day tank + bulk storage

        Yeah but you do periodic generator tests and that cycles through it. I think we do a monthly startup test, a quarterly load test and an annual black start. I’ve never heard of stale fuel being a worry.

        Anyway, I thought most large sites were participants in the national grid load shedding scheme? - not sure of the names - Duos and Triad? So they should already have the hardware and plans in place to drop off the grid when necessary.

  4. Dave Pickles

    Problem?

    A 1MW data centre powered by a diesel generator will use about 300 litres/hour (assuming efficiency as a perhaps optimistic 33%), so 900 litres for a 3-hour outage. A fuel tanker holds around 25000 litres, so one round per day will keep 30 such DCs online.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Problem?

      I'm thinking one large UK telco might not be too happy at the moment.

      Their big research centre and test facilities has had lots of work done to ensure they have the power needed...

      2 x 1MW Gas Turbine plants for electricity, heat (cooling in summer) and hot water.

      Large off-site solar farm connected to one of their Grid Feeds.

      So if it is cloudy and we are short of gas then they are going to struggle as both their own gas turbines and the grid might not have the gas to supply the power they need. I seem to recall they only had limited diesel backup due to having their own generation from gas, and one of those is so badly placed the exhaust fumes got sucked straight into one of the main buildings!

    2. Grey_Kiwi

      Re: Problem?

      It's not just a delivery quantity issue, there's a time problem too: your tanker may have enough capacity to refuel 30 DCs a day, but if it takes 45 minutes to get from the depot to the first DC, the same time from the last DC of the day back to the depot, and on average another 45 minutes to check in at the gate, fill up the tank, check out at the gate and drive to the next DC, you're going to run out of driver duty time (13 hours maximum?) after about 14 or 15 calls.

      Also, how many of the DC diesel tanks have access ways and are serviced by roads that will accommodate your full size 25000-litre tanker? They may need fuel delivery by a smaller and more agile "mini-tanker",

      There may not be enough of those around to refuel all the DCs every day or even every other day for an extended period.

      Not to mention "we have 36 hours supply on site and a contract with our supplier for daily delivery of up to 36 hours supply" is *wonderful* until you find out that your supplier has overbooked these contracts because they'll never all need filling up at the same time

  5. iron Silver badge

    Time to break out the flares and platforms, the 70s is back!

    Can we have 3 day week too?

    1. codejunky Silver badge

      @iron

      "Can we have 3 day week too?"

      Not 3 day but close- https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/oct/17/four-day-week-british-new-bill-workers-businesses

  6. vogon00

    Short-term win=long term loss

    least a 99.982 percent availability

    Interesting... 99.982% is awfully specific...anyone got any idea where this very precise value came from? That puts in in the 'three-or-four nines' uptime category, depending on your rounding preference. I would have thought DCs would be offering 'four to five nines' these days, given their increasing importance.

    As for the current risks to energy supply, things have been heading that way for a while, so I'm expecting rolling 'load shedding' blackouts this winter. IMHO, the race to green energy, whilst laudable and necessary*, has been a distraction from the business of keeping the lights on (a.k.a security of supply). The sooner fusion becomes a reality the better, but I'm not holding my breath for that. I wonder how many people are beginning to think of 'traditional fission generation' as the answer to uninterrupted supply?

    Does anyone else here wonder just how the decreasing generating capacity and existing grid/transmission infrastructure can handle the upcoming load of all the EVs we're supposed to be adopting? Never mind the increasing reliance on electrical/electronic 'tech'. It's almost at the point were you can't go for a crap without an Internet connection, which has to be powered.

    * Global warming is here now (They say) and, inevitably, the fossil fuels will run out sometime....best be prepared if we want the same quality of life as we enjoy (?) now!

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: how many people are beginning to think of 'traditional fission generation' as the answer...

      Some of us never stopped thinking this.

    2. Tiny1

      Re: Short-term win=long term loss

      99.982% availability is the minimum set by the broadly accepted Telecom Industry Association standard number 942 (Google TIA942).

      I've written a blog about power and availability here: https://blogs.gartner.com/tiny-haynes/power-prices-and-availability-in-europe-september-2022/?_ga=2.248160647.1885980787.1666863943-76512860.1643297124

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The electricity supply order of disconnection, and disconnection Rotas are publically available; and represent 40 years accumulated thinking on the subject.

    There are some elements which appear odd; for example Exports to Europe are prioritised over domestic demand. The logic behind this is essentially a NATO one. If UK is in supply trouble, continental Europe certainly is too. And running e.g. early warning radars from grid rather than diesels is preferable wherever possible.

    Observations above about ‘we should have bought nukes’ are true, however, when you’re in the network game you can only work with the cards you have been dealt by the government. 40 years of reliance on gas and wind over nuke have problems which are abundantly obvious.

    Trouble is, nukes in your back yard are an election losing policy. So a government intent on survival generally can’t do them. Having our cake and eating it, it seems, is the collective mentality. And that does not work! An element of central planning is really needed.

    1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Exports to Europe are prioritised over domestic demand.

      Of course they are. Selling electricity heavily subsidised by UK consumers to the EU is extremely profitable. See 'renewables' for more info. I never realised just how much gas windmills used until I saw the prices being charged for 'renewable' energy.

      Trouble is, nukes in your back yard are an election losing policy.

      It might not be after a '70s style winter. Challenge will still be overcoming the decades of anti-nuclear lobbying, and shameless self-promotion by the 'renewables' scumbags. Even though Hinkley was a lousy deal, the energy produced by nuclear still costs far, far less than the energy being sold by the 'renewables' parasitic loads.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I never realised just how much gas windmills used until I saw the prices being charged for 'renewable' energy.

        I would suggest that on this statement, you consider how much more gas is used in the absence of wind. Some wind, some of the time, is better than no wind all of the time.

        The only other technically viable options on the generation side are Solar, Nuclear or Coal. Solar's problems are self explanatory. Nuclear is an election-loser, and the latter is very widely accepted as horrendously damaging. (Sure, chuck HFO in the mix if you like, though considering the giant HFO plant near Fawley was recently demolished having rarely been used in 30 years that tells you all you need to know about the economics of running one of them).

        So I stand by my statement of you cannot have your cake and eat it.

        A gross excess of wind generation backed by storage, plenty of solar, and demand reduction (e.g. insulation) are more or less the only politically acceptable solution to current problems. It happens to also be one that is achievable in timescales not measured in decades.

  8. Mike 125

    prime time?

    "AWS insisted that: "This issue does not pose a risk to AWS services at this time."

    Amazon should calculate the energy required to support every customer, forced to execute his/her 'Prime sign-up Avoidance Strategy', at every checkout. Make it an account setting- energy deficit would disappear instantly.

  9. NeilPost Silver badge

    Army

    Although they are rolled out often to help … this seems an ideal Contingency Planning for the Army.

    Self-evidently they use tons themselves and have their own independent self-contained diesel fuel storage, and their delivery infrastructure gets leaned on for fuel strikes.

    Build up the diesel stocks - NOW - and use them to top up and be on Contingency standby for the winter.

    Fixed that for you

    + RAF and Navy.

    1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Re: Army

      Self-evidently they use tons themselves and have their own independent self-contained diesel fuel storage, and their delivery infrastructure gets leaned on for fuel strikes.

      Might work in the UK, might not in the US. After all, they're busily flogging off their 'Strategic Reserve' ahead of the winter elections. I mean winter.

  10. I am David Jones

    Load shedding

    Data centres can actually be useful for the grid as they can quickly reduce their energy consumption.

    You just need to differentiate between high priority and low priority workloads with a corresponding price structure.

  11. Zolko Silver badge

    infrastructure operating during possible power shortages this winter

    so ... the sanctions are working, then ? Did the government also explain how these power shortages in the UK are helping Ukrainians passing winter in Ukraine ? I didn't find the info.

    I remember when I was young that my parents told me to finish my plate because children in Africa were hungry : I never understood how the one could help the other.

    The only reason we have these problems is because "western" politicians thought they can force Russia into submission, that didn't work, and now they don't want to loose face and are ready to drive our societies into the ground by imposing even more sanctions. This will only end when they are thrown out of office and replaced by people committed to the countries they are part-of, and not to some countries far-away. That's the whole principle of "democracy" FFS !

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      So you are perfectly ok with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, its targeting of cilivian infrastructure and the murder of countless Ukrainian citizens, just as long as it's not happening in your country?

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