Reducing IT Downtime Due to Power Supply Challenges

By Drew Robb

Since February 10, 2021, Texas has experienced a never-before-seen power crisis as Winter Storm Uri’s combination of ice, snow, and record low temperatures stressed that state’s unregulated power grid beyond its breaking points. At last count, 58 lives had been lost and property damages were estimated at $19 billion. As Texas begins to recover from this once-in-a-generation disaster, what lessons can CIOs take away and apply to their businesses?

Power failures are on the rise.

Downtime in IT is traditionally discussed in terms of equipment failures, disk crashes, and loss of networking connections. But a study by LogicMonitor found power failures to be a big reason for downtime. The majority of respondents experienced between one and five brownouts and outages in the past 3 years.  

Brownouts are partial, temporary reductions in total system capacity. An energy provider might institute one in an emergency to prevent a system blackout. It could involve decreasing overall voltage by up to 25% for a short period of time to ease strain on the grid—not enough to impact heat and lighting much. However, it can play havoc with electronic equipment as it is more sensitive to voltage precision.

A blackout, on the other hand, is a sudden and complete power interruption. They also often occur unexpectedly due to a severe storm, a car plowing into a power pole, or an animal making its home inside a transformer.

That said, the U.S. electrical grid is relatively stable. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, it boasts an availability of 99.9%, not counting weather-related outages. Nevertheless, the LogicMonitor survey of 600 global IT leaders found that 97% of organizations had experienced an IT brownout, while 94% had suffered from an outage in the past three years. 7% of them admitted to having gone through at least 50 or more brownouts and outages in the last three years. The average turned out to be 15 IT outages every 3 years and 19 brownouts.

The consequences? Lost productivity was named by 66% of respondents, followed by lost revenue (43% for brownouts and 42% for outages) and damage to brand or reputation (31% for brownouts and 32% for outages). In 16% of the cases, the damage turned out to be permanent. Shutdowns like this can lead to closure of facilities and laying off of workforces.

Power reliability solutions vary.

The solutions to such problems will vary from organization to organization. In some cases, a backup generator in-house will provide enough power to keep IT running. As well as traditional diesel models, there are many available that run on cleaner natural gas. Further alternatives include the installation of solar panels on the roof or on campus grounds to enable the organization to provide at least a portion of its own power.

Some organizations are even going as far as building their own power plant on site to enable complete independence from the grid. This entails upfront investment. But it proofs the organization up against grid-related power cuts and brings to an end monthly utility bills. In some cases, the facility can even sell excess power to the grid.

Another angle is known as combined heat and power (CHP). Waste heat from a gas turbine or microturbine is used to generate steam. This steam can either be used to raise energy efficiency (and hence reduce fuel costs) or it can be harnessed for the building heating and cooling systems, or for onsite processes. Sometimes several buildings in the same vicinity can team up and split the costs to build a CHP or solar plant to serve their needs.

Hybrid arrangements are also emerging as a solution to grid disturbances. These might include solar panels paired with CHP, or solar panels and an onsite generator. Other arrangement include using onsite power when electricity rates are high and grid power when rates are low.

However it is done, the LogicMonitor survey results demonstrate that organizations should pay more attention to power resilience. A good place to start is by contacting local utilities and energy providers. They often have incentive plans or rebates to encourage companies to boost energy efficiency, lower emissions, and install cleaner or greener technologies. 

At the same time, disaster recovery and business continuity plans should take into account how the organization will respond to an uncertain—or unavailable—power supply.

Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb has been writing about IT and engineering for more than 25 years. Originally from Scotland, he now lives in Florida.

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