Solar powered data center wins fans, financial benefit

In the midst of high energy costs, the initial investments in "green" technologies are paying off for one data center.

A Romoland, Calif.-based hosting data center is now completely "green." Phil Nail, the company's data center manager and co-founder switched over to solar power in 2001 and has been tweaking his facility ever since. The investment has paid off in low energy costs and an eco-friendly marketing angle.

The 2,000-square-foot building from Affordable Internet Services Online Inc. (AISO), is powered by 120 photovoltaic panels generating electricity on ground-mounted platforms beside the data center. The power harvested from the solar panels is DC and is stored in a battery bank. After it leaves the battery bank, the power is converted to AC through Sunny Boy inverters from Grass Valley Calif.-based SMA America Inc.

According to Nail, these panels supply the power to run the data center and offices, including the air conditioners. In case of an emergency, AISO can get power from its emergency generator or the utility grid.

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Instead of diesel generators, AISO uses cleaner natural gas for its backup power. "Natural gas is a lot less expensive [than diesel]," Nail said. "In fact it is next to nothing. We test our generator weekly and the cost probably runs $30, monthly."

In addition to the benefit of free power, solar systems can offer a reliable alternative to grid-based power, especially considering California's issues with power outages and brownouts. Plus, California and other states offer companies rebates on purchasing and deploying renewable energy sources.

Daylight is used during business hours, brought in through solar tubes, dome-shaped skylights that distribute more light than traditional skylights. The tubes replace 300 watts worth of electric lamps per tube, running five hours per day, five days per week, according to Nail.

In addition, the air conditioning is Energy Star compliant. Energy Star is a government-backed agency that measures energy efficiency. AISO uses AMD servers from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Open Source Storage, which Nail believes consume less energy and give off less heat than rival chipmaker Intel's offerings.

Nail said he plans to add a green roof to the facility, a four-inch layer of sod that's been seeded with low growing plants and grasses to reduce cooling loads.

Unfortunately, this type of setup isn't for every data center. For example, AISO faced an initial hurdle with the upfront investment. "It can be costly to get started in it," Nail said. "We got in a long time ago, so we've been able to hide the costs over time. Someone with an existing building is going to face a lot of costs."

Despite the initial cash outlay, the costs have stabilized due to energy savings and AISO can offer competitive pricing. Plus, the data center hosts clients from as far away as Kenya looking for an environmentally responsible company to do business with.

Charles King, principal analyst with Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research, said AISO efforts are going to be noticed by both IT consumers and vendors.

"I think people are interested in energy efficiency because of the rising rates and uncertainty in the Middle East," King said. "Looking at the recent Sun-Niagara announcement, I'm amazed at the shear amount of verbiage allotted to energy efficiency."

King said the new solar technology is much more cost effective than the initial solar products, and he could foresee this approach taking off in some niche markets.

"Solar power works in some geographic areas better than others. And it works really well in the southwest where there is lot of open space and lots of sun," King said. "I could see huge installations of solar panels gathering power. If this guy is doing it in a small business, why not make a cottage industry for the disaster recovery, collocation business?"

AISO isn't the only example of a green data center. Jupiter, Fla.-based hosting company SolarHost runs all of its operations on renewable energy. Also, the Washington, D.C.-based mortgage company Fannie Mae has recently certified the first green data center under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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