Solving Brownfield and Greenfield Data Center Challenges with Nickel-Zinc (NiZn) Immediate Power Solutions

June 28, 2024

Description

The world’s business happens in data centers. To meet the demands of the modern, AI-driven era, data center capacity will have to dramatically expand. Data center operators need to pursue greenfield projects, building new facilities from the ground up, as well as brownfield projects that modernize older data centers or retrofit other kinds of existing structures. Creating more capacity is a straightforward goal. However, greenfield and brownfield data center buildouts come with their own respective sets of challenges. Greenfield and brownfield projects also offer different advantages, and an organization has to be strategic in their approach.

This paper aims to assess both strategies. After tracing the evolution of the data center market to the current capacity crunch, this paper identifies the key criteria for any project: meeting cost, sustainability and safety objectives. It details why these are a data center operator’s main priorities and how to meet them.

Next, this paper dives into why an organization may want to embark on the costly, ambitious endeavor of a greenfield data center buildout and what challenges may arise. Then it explores the advantages of brownfield buildouts, which are especially appealing for any organization with substantial investments in existing infrastructure that still hold value.

Lastly, in both greenfield and brownfield buildouts, immediate power delivery is an essential consideration. This paper demonstrates how nickel-zinc (NiZn) battery chemistry, an innovation in battery technology led by ZincFive, delivers immediate power while helping to address many of the obstacles that slow down both greenfield and brownfield projects.

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Executive Summary

The world’s business happens in data centers. While data centers are typically associated with technology companies, every industry in every corner of the globe needs space to store and process valuable data.

To meet the demands of the modern, AI-driven era, data center capacity will have to dramatically expand. Data center operators need to pursue greenfield projects, building new facilities from the ground up, as well as brownfield projects that modernize older data centers or retrofit other kinds of existing structures.

Creating more capacity is a straightforward goal. However, greenfield and brownfield data center buildouts come with their own respective sets of challenges. Greenfield and brownfield projects also offer different advantages, and an organization has to be strategic in their approach.

This paper aims to assess both strategies. After tracing the evolution of the data center market to the current capacity crunch, this paper identifies the key criteria for any project: meeting cost, sustainability and safety objectives. It details why these are a data center operator’s main priorities and how to meet them.

Next, this paper dives into why an organization may want to embark on the costly, ambitious endeavor of a greenfield data center buildout and what challenges may arise. Then it explores the advantages of brownfield buildouts, which are especially appealing for any organization with substantial investments in existing infrastructure that still hold value.

Lastly, in both greenfield and brownfield buildouts, immediate power delivery is an essential consideration. This paper demonstrates how nickel-zinc (NiZn) battery chemistry, an innovation in battery technology led by ZincFive, delivers immediate power while helping to address many of the obstacles that slow down both greenfield and brownfield projects.

Given the major investments needed to build a modern data center — whether from the ground up or otherwise — decision-makers are sure to consider the most reliable, future-proof technologies available. NiZn battery technology is becoming more common in the data center world as infrastructure operators look for safe, sustainable, cost-efficient ways to grow.

Background and Current Challenges

The data center market has its origins in the mid-1900s, when IBM housed mainframes in designated computer rooms. Since then, the concept of a data center has come to refer to any facility that offers dedicated space for centralized computer and telecommunications systems. In addition to the requisite compute, storage and networking hardware, data centers comprise supporting infrastructure such as power sources, backup power systems and cooling systems.

An enterprise that needs to leverage computing or telecom capabilities has a few options. First, it can build an on-premise data center for its own use. Alternatively, it can use a colocation facility, where computing resources like servers and storage devices are available for rent. The colocation host covers expenses like power, cooling infrastructure and physical security, benefitting from the economies of scale that come from hosting multiple customers. An enterprise can also choose to run its digital operations via cloud-based applications housed in hyperscale data centers — massive facilities run by technology giants like Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft.

The amount of data that flows through data centers has skyrocketed in the digital age. One way to measure data center growth and activity is by their power consumption; this helps us gauge the power draw of the actual servers housed within a data center, which may not directly correlate with a facility’s physical footprint.

In 2014, data center power consumption in the US amounted to approximately 7 gigawatts. By 2022, it reached 17 GW, and it is expected to reach 35 GW by 2030, according to McKinsey analysis¹ — more than doubling in less than a decade. Meanwhile, most of the growing demand for data center power is coming from hyperscalers and colocation facilities. In 2014, enterprises were responsible for nearly 60% of data center power consumption; they now account for around 20%.

Data center demand is growing because commerce, communication and other elements of everyday life are increasingly happening in the digital sphere. The beginning of the AI era is sending demand even higher; enterprises and organizations are taking a growing interest in generative AI, which requires more processing power and more storage.

To keep up with this demand, data center operators will need to create more space. As of mid-2023, data center vacancy rates were declining across the globe². In Q1 2023, Northern Virginia — by far and away the largest data center market — had a vacancy rate of just 1.8%, down from 2.6% a year earlier.

Given market realities — such as data center operators’ budget constraints and the sunk costs of legacy infrastructure — meeting demands for capacity will require a two-fold approach. First, many organizations will find it worthwhile to build entirely new, modern data centers. Building from the ground up on a previously-undeveloped site is known as greenfield construction. Alternatively, it may be more logical for an organization to retrofit existing facilities. Modernization projects that leverage existing facilities are referred to as brownfield projects.

Both brownfield and greenfield data center projects face a number of challenges, including supply chain disruptions, talent shortages, construction delays, a changing regulatory environment and real estate constraints.

Additionally, the industry will have to overcome major power supply constraints, a challenge that’s slowing down data center development around the globe. Supplying sufficient power to data centers will require adequate power generation, as well as improved transmission and distribution. Data center developers can also tackle the challenge with infrastructure that uses power more efficiently.

Given the myriad challenges facing the IT industry, there are key considerations for any data center buildout.

Key Criteria for Greenfield and Brownfield Projects

Any brownfield or greenfield data center buildout must be cost effective, meet increasing sustainability mandates and meet safety requirements.

Cost

Data center operators are making major investments to expand and upgrade their facilities. The global data construction market is forecasted to grow from $50.34 billion (as of 2022) to $73.43 billion by 2028. A decade ago, data center spending accounted for roughly 36% of overall IT spending. Now, it’s projected to account for nearly 53%.

Hyperscalers continue to make eye-popping investments in new facilities. Amazon Web Services in January 2024 announced it would spend 2.26 trillion yen³ (15.3 billion USD) on cloud infrastructure in Tokyo and Osaka between now and 2027. At the same time, Google announced a new $1 billion investment on just one new data center on a 33-acre site in the UK.

Given the sizable investments at stake, data center operators want every dollar well spent. Furthermore, organizations face serious macroeconomic headwinds such as persistent inflation combined with high interest rates, global political uncertainty, and supply chain disruptions that have increased construction and procurement costs. Limited real estate availability also drives up costs in regions where data center operators want to expand their facilities. Meanwhile, data center operators must look past their initial construction costs and consider the evolution of operating expenditures as well as capital expenditures.

Data center buildouts can keep costs in check with wise investments in different components. Cooling systems, for instance, can account for 15% to 20% of the overall cost of a data center project, making the system design a financially critical decision.

Nickel-zinc batteries, meanwhile, can reduce equipment costs in multiple ways. ZincFive’s battery cabinets offer the smallest footprint-per-watt on the market, minimizing the amount of costly real estate that must be dedicated to backup power systems.

NiZn batteries are also low maintenance and have long life; ZincFive battery cabinets come with a 10-year warranty, as do some lithium-ion battery cabinets. By comparison, traditional lead acid battery cabinets come with a warranty lasting around 3 to 7 years. Additionally, since nickel-zinc battery technology has no thermal runaway at a cell level, it can operate at a wider temperature range than competing battery technologies, saving money on cooling systems.

BC 2 Battery Cabinets Powered by Nickel-Zinc Batteries

Sustainability

Increasingly, every data center buildout must consider its environmental impact. Data center architects and operators are expected to rely on renewable energy when possible, minimize energy consumption and use energy as efficiently as possible. These goals are tracked in part by measuring a data center’s power usage effectiveness (PUE), water usage effectiveness (WUE), and carbon footprint.

As governments grapple with climate change, they’re imposing new sustainability requirements on the data center market and the broader economy. The European Union, for instance, updated the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) in 2023, requiring data centers to monitor and report their energy consumption and emissions. In the United States, states have largely driven the regulatory environment. For instance, California last year adopted two new laws requiring companies to disclose more information related to their greenhouse gas emissions and climate-related financial risks. Corporate entities are also feeling the pressure to achieve certain sustainability goals from their shareholders and the general public. According to Gartner, 2022 was the first year surveyed CEOs called environmental sustainability a top 10 strategic business priority.

There are a variety of tactics that data center architects and operators can leverage to meet these sustainability requirements. Hyperscalers, for instance, are adopting innovative air-cooling solutions to drastically cut back on data center water usage.

NiZn batteries are more environmentally friendly than other battery chemistries. A Climate Impact Profile by Boundless Impact Research and Analytics found that, compared with lead-acid and lithium batteries, NiZn has advantages with lower GHG emissions, water footprint, energy footprint, and other sustainability metrics. Specifically, NiZn batteries’ lifetime greenhouse gas emissions are 4x lower than lead-acid and 6x lower than lithium-ion emissions. Meanwhile, a NiZn battery demands 96% less water from cradle to gate than the average lithium-ion battery. The energy footprint, manufacturing to gate, for NiZn is 23%-33% less than that of lithium-ion batteries and lead-acid pure-lead batteries.

Nickel-zinc batteries use common, widely available, conflict-free materials. Nickel and zinc are abundant in the Earth’s crust, respectively, 4x and 5x more than lithium and lead. They are also fully recyclable, environmentally friendly with a low carbon footprint, and not hazardous.

Because NiZn batteries are highly recyclable, they are a logical component of a “circular economy.” The concept of a “circular economy,” which is gaining traction in corporate conversations, refers to a holistic system that minimizes waste and pollution, keeps products in use, and regenerates natural resources.

Safety

As more data centers are built around the globe, delivering mission-critical services for countless businesses and entities, safety is paramount.

Fires are not only an obvious safety risk within the data center but also a real business risk. The Uptime Institute found that 7% of data center outages in 2023 were caused by fires10. While not all data center fires are the result of batteries, components such as lithium can certainly accelerate fires, potentially destroying millions of dollars of servers.

Consequently, data center operators have to invest in proper fire suppression, deflagration venting and other safety features. Alternatively, they can invest in safer technology.

NiZn battery chemistry is inherently safer than both lead-acid and lithium-ion, with no thermal runaway at the cell level. The aqueous electrolyte lacks the flammability and reactivity of organic solvent-based electrolytes used in lithium batteries, which, when failed, can emit toxic fumes.

Compared to lead-acid batteries, ZincFive’s nickel-zinc batteries do not out-gas during normal operation.

UL 9540A testing shows that ZincFive’s nickel-zinc batteries do not exhibit thermal runaway, making them non-flammable and non-reactive to air and water.

The result is reduced safety-related infrastructure, lower costs, and peace of mind.

Greenfield & Brownfield Data Center Projects

Greenfield Data Center Projects

As the demand for data center capacity continues to grow, hyperscalers are leading the way in greenfield deployments. Hyperscalers have the capital to start from scratch. It takes significant resources to scout out available real estate in strategically sound locations, and then build an entirely new facility that can accommodate leading-edge innovation. A new hyperscale data center typically costs upwards of $200 million, with the potential to reach into the billions.

In 2023, hyperscalers operated approximately 900 data centers worldwide, according to Synergy Research Group, accounting for about 37% of worldwide capacity. Overall data center capacity is expected to double by 2028, with hyperscalers accounting for more than half of it.

Building a greenfield data center is about more than simply adding capacity. As hyperscalers extend their reach to new markets and geographic regions, they need to bring their infrastructure closer to their customers. Furthermore, cloud customers are increasingly reliant on distributed workloads, leveraging data centers in different regions of the world to better serve their own customers. More distributed infrastructure also allows cloud customers to better utilize edge-based technologies.

Building from the ground up also gives an organization the opportunity to take different design approaches. Traditionally, data center buildouts take a stick-built approach: materials are delivered to the site of construction, and the facility is built from the ground up. However, data center operators are increasingly turning to modular designs, relying on pre-built components to quickly establish a larger data center footprint.

Modular data centers represent a small but growing portion of the market: in 2022, they accounted for 3.6% of overall data center revenue, according to research firm Omdia. That figure should reach 5% by the end of 2026. The modular data center market in 2026 is forecast to be worth $5.25 billion, up from $3.25 billion in 2023.

In some cases, an organization may want to take a hybrid approach, building a custom-designed data center that includes pre-built power or cooling modules. With current mainstream battery technology, this can be a challenging approach. With some lithium-ion batteries, for instance, a standalone power module would need to include an HVAC system to ensure a maximum temperature within the module of 28 degrees Celsius. It would require a fire suppression system and a deflagration vent. The entirety of the internal structure would have to meet higher burn ratings. On top of all that, these changes to the structure of the container in some areas require different permitting, taxation, and can hamper the data center’s overall footprint.

By comparison, with NiZn battery technology, the option of installing a power module outside of a main server building becomes significantly simpler, safer and more cost effective. Given that NiZn batteries have no thermal runaway at the cell level, the modular unit does not require a fire suppression system. Additionally, container operations can reach up to 35 degrees Celsius; thus, it reduces cooling costs and reduces the footprint occupied by the HVAC system. NiZn batteries also offer higher power density, discharging high levels of power quickly. Compared to conventional lead-acid batteries, ZincFive’s NiZn batteries offer up to 3x the power density while being half the size and one third of the weight.

All told, using NiZn batteries instead of lithium-ion batteries can reduce the length of a modular power container by several feet. This is noteworthy, given that the average container costs approximately $10,000 per foot. Additionally, ZincFive’s modular battery cabinets are significantly more cost effective because the batteries ship from the ZincFive factory to their destination inside the cabinet. Due to the volatile nature of lithium-ion batteries, some brands must be shipped separately and installed upon arrival.

Meanwhile, hyperscalers intent on optimizing the footprint of new data centers have resources they can leverage, such as the Open Compute Project’s data center design principles.

For instance, the collaborative industry organization — helmed by major companies including Meta, IBM, Intel, Nokia, Google and Microsoft — opted to include a distributed offline backup power strategy in its design principles, as opposed to a standard inline centralized UPS for backup power. ZincFive’s in-rack battery backup units allow data center organizers to take a distributed approach.

As with any major capital investment, a number of external factors can impact the construction of a greenfield data center. Macroeconomic headwinds, global political uncertainty and supply chain challenges all impact the data center market. In key markets, the limited availability of land — whether due to high costs, political interference or both— is a major challenge. 

Northern Virginia, for instance, is the largest data center market in the world and remains a desirable location for new infrastructure. However, data center buildouts have experienced delays in recent years, in part because of local opposition.

Limited power capacity is also a serious constraint on the greenfield data center market. In Singapore, for instance, the government in 2019 enacted a three-year moratorium on data center construction in response to the energy consumption they require. Meanwhile, in London — the second-largest data center market — “a key electricity substation upgrade in the western corridor has been delayed,” according to CBRE. “As a result, securing power from the grid operator is almost impossible for the next few years. This is a problem for the hyperscalers, given their desire to expand their availability zones in the western corridor.”

Brownfield Data Center Projects

While greenfield buildouts will significantly contribute to the growth of the overall data center market, breaking ground on an entirely new facility isn’t always the logical way to build more capacity.

Organizations of all kinds — including hyperscalers, enterprises, medical facilities and educational institutions, to name a few — have existing data centers or other sites that they can retrofit with modern data center technology. Brownfield buildouts allow organizations to leverage the real estate already in their possession, as well as legacy IT equipment. By pursuing a brownfield buildout, an organization can potentially avoid the regulatory hurdles that can slow down greenfield projects. All told, brownfield projects can be completed relatively quickly and with a smaller budget.

Brownfield projects are sure to look more appealing to enterprises ready to integrate AI into their workflows. While hyperscalers are already making significant investments in AI-powered products, the opportunities to leverage AI extend far beyond the walls of Microsoft or Google. Nearly half of organizations surveyed last year said they were evaluating the business use cases for AI. However, to keep up with the demand generated by AI, data center capacity will need to grow by nearly 300%, according to one estimate.

Modular data center expansions provide ways for organizations to quickly add capacity to existing operations. For instance, an enterprise could add a power module unit outside of its existing data center, delivering more power capacity to support increasing compute power within a facility. Alternatively, adding a power module outside of the data center would allow an enterprise to strip out old power and cooling infrastructure that sits within the facility, occupying valuable floor space. As is the case for greenfield projects, brownfield projects can add power modules that leverage NiZn battery technology for simple, safe and cost effective power expansions.

NiZn batteries also provide an option for data center operators who want to replace existing lead-acid batteries with a safe, longer-lasting and more sustainable option. ZincFive offers a NiZn drop-in replacement for lead-acid UPS batteries. It is adapted to use the same charging system as lead-acid batteries, making the replacement process seamless. NiZn batteries have an operating life up to 3x that of lead-acid batteries, thanks to the stable, non-corroding positive nickel current collector in nickel-zinc batteries.

NiZn batteries also give data center operators a way to make existing facilities more sustainable. Generally speaking, sustainability goals are easier to reach with greenfield projects, which can use the most sustainable components for every part of the facility. Brownfield projects may include building materials that are less energy efficient, for instance. Older buildings may also have different layouts that simply make them harder to cool efficiently. However, the cradle to grave carbon footprint of a nickel-zinc battery is significantly less than lead-acid or lithium batteries.

Additionally, NiZn batteries’ lifetime greenhouse gas emissions are 4x lower than lead-acid and 6x lower than lithium-ion emissions. Furthermore, nickel-zinc batteries use common, widely available, conflict-free materials.

Brownfield projects face many of the same external challenges as greenfield projects, including economic headwinds and supply chain disruptions. While limited real estate can be a challenge for greenfield projects, it may counterintuitively serve as an advantage for brownfield buildouts — there may be economic incentives available for organizations that can modernize older buildings.

Data center operators may also run up against resistance within their own organization, if leaders are inclined to use existing infrastructure as long as possible before undertaking modernization projects. However, technologies like NiZn can help make a compelling case for facility upgrades. For one thing, NiZn batteries are more reliable than lead-acid or lithium-ion batteries — the cells remain conductive even when weak or depleted. Most leaders would agree that the risk of letting business-critical systems fail is not worth taking simply to squeeze a few more years out of existing battery backup systems. Furthermore, NiZn batteries can help reduce operating costs by reducing the need for safety infrastructure.

Conclusion

Data center operators have reached a critical point where they must decide how to add capacity to their operations. If they do not, they risk being left behind while competitors host new, in-demand, power-hungry AI tools.

There are a few key considerations for every data center buildout: cost, safety and sustainability. Along with other bleeding-edge technologies, ZincFive’s field-proven nickel-zinc battery technology can help data center architects and operators meet requirements in each of these areas. Entities that need more data center capacity can pursue greenfield projects or brownfield projects. One route may make more sense than the other, given an organization’s size, existing infrastructure, available capital and capacity needs.

In each of these scenarios, incorporating nickel-zinc battery technology is a wise choice.

Citations

1 https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/our-insights/investing-in-the-rising-data-center-economy

2 https://www.cbre.com/insights/reports/global-data-center-trends-2023

3 https://press.aboutamazon.com/aws/2024/1/aws-plans-to-invest-2-26-trillion-yen-into-its-japanese-cloud-infrastructure-by-2027

4 https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/google-to-invest-1-billion-in-united-kingdom-data-centre-302038632.html

5 https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20230703133703/en/Worldwide-Data-Center-Construction-Market-Report-2023-A-73.43-Billion-Market-by-2028—Market-Growth-Enablers-Restraints-and-Trends—ResearchAndMarkets.com

6 https://energy.ec.europa.eu/topics/energy-e³ciency/energy-efficiency-targets-directive-and-rules/energy-effciency-directive_en

7 https://watershed.com/blog/california-sb-253-and-sb-261-a-guide-for-companies

8 https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2022-05-18-gartner-survey-reveals-signifcant-shifts-in-ceo-thinking-on-sustainability-workforce-issues-and-infation-in-2022

9 ZincFive Climate Impact Profile

10 https://uptimeinstitute.com/resources/research-and-reports/annual-outage-analysis-202