OFGEM has announced that spare electricity production capacity in the UK could fall to two percent by 2015, increasing the risk of blackouts. The regulator said more investment in power generation was needed to protect consumers - at a time when many power companies are starting to close or mothball older plants. The government has called for OFGEM to ensure that, with all the tools at its disposal, the lights stay on. Data centres are often thought of as part of the problem - entities that consume energy by the bucketload. In fact, they can be part of the solution.

It’s a given that aggregating data centres from different companies together brings efficiencies and economies of scale. Large data centres are usually more power efficient than the equivalent processing, network and storage spread out over a large number of small server rooms and data centres. Additionally, it is by most estimates twice as energy efficient for small and mid-sized companies to use a third party data centre with economies of scale than run things on their own premises.

But there are other ways that data centres can help the predicted energy shortage. Aside from ‘doing the basics’ in increasing data centre efficiency - virtualise the estate, use free-air cooling and switch to high-efficiency UPS - it is also worth looking at the infrastructure applications run on. Does it need to be all Tier 4 kit? Perhaps a mixed-tier environment would be more sustainable. The most exciting opportunity for data centre operators thinking long term to help address the energy crisis is by thinking laterally - and it makes good business sense, too. Caching energy from off-peak periods to use during peak demand can reduce a company’s electricity bill, but if a data centre can feed that energy back into the grid, then it can help even out peaks in demand.

One example might be Dinorwig Power Station in North Wales, which was originally used to address peak loads in the National Grid, and can supply up to 1,650Mw within a few minutes. Now used as a Short Term Operating Reserve, perhaps the easiest way to describe what Dinowrig does is to say that it evens out the peaks and troughs in demand in the National Grid. When millions of households switch their kettles on at the end of Coronation Street, Dinorwig helps cope with the sudden demand for electricity.

The same principle of caching energy can apply to data centres. By using energy reserves in a data centre’s generators, which need to be regularly tested anyway, periods of low demand can be used to prepare for times of peak usage. This can either be used on-site, or fed back into the grid, earning the operator a feed in tariff (FIT) from the power company and helping the power generators meet peak demand. That said, the overall environmental impact of these generators versus the end-to-end carbon cost of new power station equipment still needs to be rationalised.

But there are more imaginative methods, too. For an urban data centre, waste heat could be used for heating public buildings, such as the local municipal swimming pool. Another option may be to cool a large body of water during off peak hours to use as a negative thermal mass - a heat sink for cooling - during peak periods.

All of this comes down to something we’re very keen on at Eaton; using the sort of technology data centres power to be more intelligent about energy usage inside the data centre itself - rather than pumping huge amounts of power to every component to unnecessarily heat or cool it.

Two things would help the situation OFGEM describes in the long term. Firstly, we need to look at building the infrastructure to allow heat to be moved around in urban environments to where it’s needed, such as apartment buildings, swimming pools or classrooms. Secondly, absorption chillers that turn heat into cooling power, while currently expensive, are still a better option than simply letting that energy go to waste. Finally, technology that allows us to map business services to IT hardware, so if something isn’t used, it can be powered down to a sleep state.

The IT community is actually in a very good position to suggest strategic, thought-through answers to the problems these shortages will create. We can make a difference.

Naser Ali is segment marketing manager, data centres at Eaton Corporation