A string of off-grid solar-powered data centres will transform regional business


Six weeks into operating its first solar-powered, off-grid data centre, in regional Grafton, Edge Centres today announced a joint venture that will roll out its model for carbon-positive data crunch and distribution in Japan.

Did we miss something? Founder of Edge Centres, Jonathan Eaves this morning told pv magazine Australia that he and a close-knit team wanted to get one of the autonomous centres powered by its adjacent 1 MW solar array and backed up by lithium-ion battery storage to provide always-on technology (AOT), up and running before doing a song and dance.

Even now, with Grafton (known as EC1) subscribed to by a Singapore-based edge-computing cloud provider, and also running environmental monitoring for the city of Grafton itself, and with two further centres about to go live — Dubbo (EC4)  in July, Bendigo (EC3) in August — Eaves is remarkably low-key about a service that is set to put regional Australia on a par with metro communications technology for the first time ever.

Edge Centre’s appeal in Japan is similar. Although Japan has a smaller landmass and a larger population, it still “periodically experiences significant internet challenges at far-edge locations”, says Eaves.

In Japan, Edge Centres is partnering with IT strategy firm Alan Kei Associates and expects to launch its first data centre later this year in the Kanto region, which will be used as a showcase for government and commercial clients, with another site already planned for the south-western island of Kyushu.

Julian Lloyd, Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Alan Kei Associates, says that although the Japanese data centre market is concentrated in Tokyo and Osaka, “There remain many opportunities in other cities around Japan which will enable growth of high-tech innovation hubs and support the Japanese government’s many digital transformation initiatives.”

Long distances travelled by Australian data

In Australia, regional data processing still generally occurs in metropolitan-based data centres, taking time and extra processing power to make the long return journey to more remote areas.

Eaves paints a sample picture of data coming from a smart agrotech tractor working autonomously in regional New South Wales that may currently travel all the way to Sydney, then Sydney has to correlate and compute that data, get an outcome and send it back.

“Processing at the edge reduces that time, but it also reduces the workload on the internet,” he says.

The low cost of solar generation, and of locating at the edge where land is cheaper, and of running a virtually autonomous data centre — each Edge centre is remotely monitored and has contracted local computer expertise to attend to repairs and maintenance as needed — also translates into lower data costs for local businesses and service providers.

The megabit-per-second fee for data in regional centres can be as much as three times what metro users pay for that data, and is usually at least twice as expensive, says Eaves.

“We can match what you would pay in any metro centre, because we buy large and we will  have a distributed network that goes from Brisbane, all the way down to Melbourne” — a backbone of regional internet carriage.

Melding data centres with Australia’s solar resource

Eaves is no stranger to data centre design and construction, having built centres in Australia and in the United Arab Emirates.

He came back from Dubai with a vision to go to the edge, and was trying to get his head around the typical six-month period to energisation, when it occurred to him that solar power could provide a great quick-start solution — which quickly progressed into planning a modular off-grid facility.

“We started work on the Grafton site on March 13, and four weeks later it was live as the world’s first solar-powered, net-zero data centre,” he says.

Edge Centres’ plan is to locate at the top 20 points of interconnection (POIs) on the National Broadband Network within the next two to three years: after Bendigo it will build at Shepparton, Albury, Melbourne, and on, on up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

“If a business in Parkes, Orange, Bathurst or Forbes wants data services, they feed into Dubbo for access,” says Eaves, illustrating how the POIs are the hubs for more remote cities and towns.

The Edge Centres model is carrier neutral, providing any telco an opportunity to extend their network into strategic locations.

One megawatt of solar combined with 48 hours of battery storage and a smart management system integrated with cloud cover forecasting form the heart of each modular data-centre system, which Eaves says can be modified to suit any terrain other than areas that are under snow for much of the year — not good for solar generation.

In Japan, the containerised systems will be modified to withstand earthquake activity; in Australia, they are already rated to operate at greater than 45 degrees Celsius.

Solar energy provides Edge Centres’ facilities with all their onsite power needs: for a consistent 150 kW of IT workload, air-conditioning, energy efficient lighting, security systems such as facial-recognition CCTVs and so on.

Batteries hold the key to reliability

The critical factor for data centres is maintaining uptime. Edge Centres have dual solar feed, providing an A and a B supply to each customer’s rack, and multiple inverters on a single phase, which Eaves says provides greater redundancy than power sourced from a traditional utility. Edge Centres also typically generate much more energy than they use, storing excess in banks of lithium ion battery storage

Eaves says that a Japanese solar farm operator first contacted him when they realised that small data centres on the Edge model could be hooked up to their renewable assets to diversify their sources of revenue.

“There are a lot of new players coming that will change the way we look at, and how we deal with internet in Australia,” says Eaves. Having proved that renewables can power this most reliability-conscious of industries, he adds, “It’s the beginning of a new revolution.”


This content is protected by copyright and may not be reused. If you want to cooperate with us and would like to reuse some of our content, please contact: editors@pv-magazine.com.