​Electricity Gap: Microsoft taps UTSA, energy companies to bridge data-center divide

​Electricity Gap: Microsoft taps UTSA, energy companies to bridge data-center divide
August 15, 2016 | posted by The Institute

This article was originally posted by the San Antonio Business Journal by Journalist Kristen Mosbrucker. 

Technology giant Microsoft Corp. is hoping that research at the University of Texas at San Antonio — in conjunction with several companies in the energy sector — will offer the missing link to enable battery-powered data centers someday.

Right now, most data centers are plugged into the power grid directly and have several backup sources, including diesel generators, in case of power outages. Companies must pay government agencies to offset the emissions of those fossil fuels, so becoming less dependent on those sources of power can be a cost saver.

That potential battery future is likely years away, but it’s a fire-hot realm for businesses that operate data centers. Those facilities, which are essentially massive computer server farms, fuel cloud computing, or the ability for websites and applications to be available anytime, anywhere.

There is the potential that this battery-powered future could, in turn, make cloud computing power even cheaper than it is now, which means businesses that need space to run their websites and other applications may pay less too.

"It doesn't take a Ph.D. to know that we are entering a new industrial revolution. … And companies like Microsoft are building the factories for this new industrial age," Sean James, senior project manager of research at Microsoft, told a crowd at UTSA. "Microsoft is committed to fueling these new factories with sustainable energy."

In particular, liquid-flow batteries separate electricity generation from storage, which allows for having a fixed amount of power while adjusting the volume of energy the battery stores at any given time. That opens the door to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, whose electrical power generation typically fluctuates and often don't coincide with power demand.

"If I have a 100-megawatt data center, I can put in 100 megawatts of energy in my battery and have variable amounts of storage," James said.

Beyond that, there are potential applications for these batteries — which have fluid inside rather than lithium or lead acid — to be used on the power grid to store energy from renewable sources, like solar or wind.

This is why companies like Houston-based NRG Energy Inc. have decided to match Microsoft's $1 million capital investment in its research through a partnership between UTSA and Southwest Research Institute — an organization that is regularly tapped by the private sector to conduct research and development.

Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft has one data center in the Westover Hills development and is building a second one inside the Texas Research & Technology Foundation Park on the far West Side of San Antonio. That new facility is expected to create 156 jobs.

The company is investing roughly $1 billion over seven years. In exchange for economic incentives, including a tax abatement on the property. In exchange, the technology company agreed to donate the $1 million to UTSA for the battery research.

Electricity costs over the life of a data center can often cost more than the construction of the facility, Microsoft officials said in 2014 when the three-year-long research project began.

There are several players in the energy market active in the research.

Since 2014, Australia-based RedFlow Energy Storage Solutions Inc. — a liquid battery manufacturer with an office in Austin — and Gildemeister energy solutions, makers of a cell cube battery, have been involved in the project. Gildemeister is a subsidiary of German manufacturer DMG Mori Aktiengesellschaft.

In June, Primus Power — a venture capital-backed business that builds liquid batteries for the electric grid based in California — joined the project.