Shaping the Future of Datacenters:
DC Power and Sustainability Trends

A Need for Sustainability

 

Today’s datacenters face a variety of new challenges, including a pressing need for increased efficiency and sustainability. Many statistics emphasize this trend, including: 

 

  • Datacenters and data transmission networks account for about 2-3% of global electricity use, an amount that continues to grow.

  • Carbon emissions associated with datacenters doubled between 2017 and 2020, exceeding the emissions from all commercial flights. 

  • Datacenter power usage is estimated to triple by 2030, fueled by the rise of energy-hungry artificial intelligence language models. 

 

As the world’s reliance on datacenters expands, it is clear datacenters need to prepare for the future by investing in more efficient technologies. One potential solution that has been proposed for years is switching datacenters from alternating current (AC) power to direct current (DC) power, conserving energy by removing a series of redundant AC-DC conversions. Although the idea is not without its drawbacks, there remain significant benefits to the idea that has implications for the future sustainability of datacenters. 

Edison vs. Tesla: The History of the “War of the Currents”

 

The AC versus DC power idea may have resurfaced in recent years, but it is not a new debate. In fact, the original “war of the currents” occurred in the late 1800s between inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Edison promoted direct current, while Tesla and his industrialist backer George Westinghouse promoted alternating current. Both sides sought to demonstrate their invention was better and competed over work contracts. Edison even launched a propaganda campaign to discredit AC power, attempting to prove it was more dangerous by electrocuting animals with AC current. 

 

However, when Westinghouse and Tesla’s AC power won the contract to power the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the writing was on the wall for Edison’s DC invention. DC power had a couple of major disadvantages, including:

 

  • Distance: DC power was much harder to transport over great distances without major power loss, requiring power stations to be located within a mile of the buildings they powered.

  • Price: Westinghouse won the World’s Fair contract primarily because his AC power contract asked for about $150,000 less than Edison’s proposal.

  • Voltage Changes: Unlike AC, the voltage with DC power could not be easily stepped up or down via a transformer.

     

Despite Edison’s best efforts, these drawbacks were too much for DC to overcome. By the time Westinghouse won a contract to generate power from Niagara Falls in 1896, even Edison’s backer, General Electric, had abandoned DC for AC. For over a century, AC current was firmly established as the predominant power current in America.

Graphic image discussing Anderson Power being at the 1893 World Fair

Anderson Power participated in the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, a key battleground in the ‘war of the currents’. The company won two awards. Pictured here is one award recognizing the company's exhibit on trolleys.

AC vs. DC in Today’s Datacenters

 

Today, DC power is making a bit of a comeback. Computers, phones, TVs, and LEDs, along with sustainable energy sources like solar and wind, all run on DC power. Advances in technology, including the adoption of high voltage direct current (HVDC) lines, can transport DC current longer distances with less energy loss.

 

Datacenters today still generally rely on AC to power their systems. However, the backup batteries that sustain the datacenter in the event of a power interruption run on DC power. This situation requires a complex series of conversions within the datacenter:

 

  1. First, power enters the datacenter as AC power and goes through a rectifier that changes it to DC. 

  2. Then, power runs through the Uninterruptible Power Supply (the backup batteries) as DC power.

  3. Finally, power goes through an inverter that converts it back to AC to feed the rest of the datacenter system.

 

These numerous conversions are inefficient and waste energy, which has sparked some interest in developing fully DC-powered datacenters. In a DC datacenter, only one conversion is needed: taking the AC power provided by the electrical grid and changing it to DC. The amount of energy conservation would be significant. Studies have shown that in AC datacenters with an isolation transformer, adopting a DC system would save approximately 6.1% in energy costs alone.

 

According to FS, a company involved in the fiber optic networking industry, additional benefits of adopting DC-powered datacenters include:

 

  • Material Cost Savings: DC systems use less copper than AC systems and do not require the use of rectifiers and transformers.

  • Reduced Space: With less conversions needed, DC systems require less space to operate, leaving more room within the datacenter for server racks or cooling equipment.

  • Sustainability: As datacenters strive to reduce their carbon footprint and energy consumption, DC systems make it much easier to integrate renewable energy sources like solar or fuel cells. 

  • Design Simplicity: DC systems have a simpler design, with fewer components and points of failure than AC. 

 

However, the adoption of DC power in datacenters is not without challenges, including:

 

  • Lack of Standards: DC power systems do not have as many established industry standards as AC, including for electrical voltages, arc flash, and grounding. This requires each system to be engineered individually, increasing costs.

  • Lack of Industry Knowledge: Datacenter owners, operators, and contractors are not as familiar with DC power. 

  • Restructuring Cost: Swapping existing datacenter infrastructure from AC to DC power is costly. 

  • Other DC Building Resources: Other building systems, such as air conditioning and fire protection systems, would ideally need to be DC to run in DC-powered datacenters. However, there are few DC options on the market.

Graphic chart displaying pros vs cons of direct current
Graphic chart displaying pros vs cons of direct current

Figure 2: There are many pros and cons to weigh when a datacenter is considering adopting DC power. This graphic highlights some of the primary considerations.

Datacenters: A Booming Industry

 

Each datacenter must weigh these costs and benefits when considering a DC-powered system. Regardless of their decision, other sustainability and efficiency concerns are only going to grow alongside the datacenter industry itself. Companies are increasingly investing staggering amounts of resources and research into datacenters, including:

 

  • Microsoft is building a new, expansive datacenter in Hyderabad, India and intends to invest about $2 billion into the region. 

  • Chip-maker Nvidia is selling their datacenter AI technologies at astounding rates; the company’s revenue outlook for the second quarter of 2024 alone is $11 billion.

  • Google recently announced plans to build two more datacenters in Columbus, Ohio to power its AI technology, bringing the company’s total datacenter investment in the state to more than $2 billion.

     

These investments will only increase the need for efficient and compact datacenter technologies that can handle large power demands. 

Photograph of blue Powerpole connectors on orange background

Figure 3: Powerpole is a versatile and adaptable connector from Anderson Power.  With four housing sizes available, Powerpole connectors can be used alone, in a splitter, up to 350A and with wire ranges from #20 AWG to 3/0.

An Efficient Solution for both AC and DC: The Saf-D-Grid®

In response to this growing need, Anderson Power developed a versatile power connector called the Saf-D-Grid in 2009. The Saf-D-Grid is more efficient, compact, and powerful than all other industry standard connectors. Best of all, the product works with both AC and DC powered datacenters, providing an all-in-one solution regardless of datacenter type.

 

The Saf-D-Grid connector is:

  • Adaptable, and can be used with either DC or AC power systems. 

  • Powerful, with the ability to handle up to 400 volts and 30 amps. It can carry 1.4x more current and 1.6x more voltage than the standard IEC 60320 C20 connector within the same footprint of a C14 connector.

  • Compact, with a substantial power density advantage that packs power into a smaller footprint. 

  • Touch-safe, minimizing the risk of personnel contact with a hazardous voltage. The housings contain the arc if connectors are mated or unmated while under load.

     

Another innovative Anderson Power product, the Powerpole® Connector Series, is also adaptable to many different power connection situations. With four housing sizes available, Powerpole connectors carry a wide range of amperage and wire sizes in a compact footprint.

Moving Toward the Future: New Connector Innovations

 

In addition to these existing products, Anderson Power is committed to developing even more efficient solutions for datacenters. David Beach, a Product Manager at Anderson Power, emphasized the company has multiple projects in the works to address current industry needs.

 

“We are determined to be a sustainable solution for our customers,” said Beach. “We will be introducing more flexible power connections for DC and single and three phase AC power for datacenter applications, with an eye toward scalability as the demands from AI architecture increase.   

 

Ultimately, as datacenters confront increasing power demands and look to embrace sustainable and efficient technologies, Anderson Power is at the forefront of addressing their evolving needs. With adaptable products such as the Saf-D-Grid, the company offers a glimpse into a future where the historical debate between AC and DC power finds renewed relevance in the quest for powerful, sustainable, and efficient datacenters.

Close Up of Computer Data Processors

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