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Google plans to go carbon neutral by 2008

Bridget Botelho

Last month the search engine company Google Inc. announced plans to become carbon neutral by 2008 by maximizing the efficiency

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of its data centers around the world, subsidizing environmentally friendly transportation for employees and other energy-efficient strategies.

While Google keeps confidential the number of servers and even the number of data centers it operates, Bill Weihl, who heads the conservation efforts of the company, shared with SearchDataCenter.com some of the ways in which it maximizes energy efficiency.

Google employs teams of engineers to find ways to build efficiencies into its data centers. According to the company, data centers use half as much power as the industry average due to innovative cooling technologies like ultra-efficient evaporative cooling that the company has designed with the help of consultants, and Google builds all its own servers with energy efficiency in mind, Weihl said.

In the case of most servers, [power supply] design is not geared towards efficiency.
Bill Weihl,
Google Inc.

While Google keeps its server recipe under lock and key, it revealed some of its efficiency tips in a white paper last fall. Google's server power supplies are more than 90% efficient compared with typical server efficiencies at or below 70%,Weihl said.

Google servers use a simple 12-volt power supply, which generates a single voltage. All other voltages required by motherboard components are generated on the motherboard itself via voltage regulator modules (VRMs). The net result of this setup is greater-than-average efficiency (including power supply and VRMs) at virtually no cost, according to the white paper.

"We've been using these power supplies for the past four years or so, and we're looking at other ways to make power supplies more efficient," Weihl said. "In the case of most servers, [power supply] design is not geared towards efficiency."

"Manufacturers have the ability to make server [power supplies] 90% efficient. It isn't magic that we've done here; it is just something that people have to ask for at this point," said Weihl. "For a typical 1U or 2U server, it is only about $30 more to get that kind of efficiency and with the reduction in operating costs, [it] will pay for itself quickly."

Though Google is clearly proud of what Weihl called the "highly efficient" design of its servers and cooling systems, Weihl said the company will likely stick with the business it's already in; so don't look for Google-brand hardware or computer room air conditioning (CRAC) units anytime soon.

 

Powering Google

To become carbon neutral, Google will have to use renewable-energy sources, an undertaking that it's already begun. The company finished the first phase of a 1.6 megawatt (MW) solar panel project at its 978,000-square-foot headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. The 9,212 solar panels there will provide nearly a third of the facility's energy needs at peak times. The panels will pay for themselves in less than eight years and have a life span of more than a quarter-century, the company reported.

"From the point of view of renewable energy, the solar panels is the biggest step we've taken so far. It's the first step, and it's a huge one for us," Weihl said.

Plans for an additional 50 MW of renewable energy generating capacity -- enough to power 50,000 homes -- are scheduled for completion by 2012.

The search engine company periodically brings in auditors from energy companies to understand how and where electricity is consumed so that more efficiencies can be added. "There are still quite a few areas for big and cheap efficiency opportunities," Weihl said.

The new Google facility being built in Iowa will rely on power from MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., which burns coal. But MidAmerican, which currently has 695.5 MW of wind energy facilities in Iowa and pending approvals, plans to add another 540 MW of wind energy.

Drue Reeves, vice president and research director at Burton Group, an IT consulting firm, is skeptical of Google's ability to reach its carbon-neutral goal with facilities that rely so heavily on fossil fuels. "Being completely carbon neutral by 2008 is going to be tough for Google," said Reeves, "especially with this [Iowa] facility, since MidAmerican mainly burns coal,"

Google plans to offset emissions it cannot eliminate directly with programs, such as one that subsidizes up to $5,000 the purchase of high mile-per-gallon vehicles in the U.S. and another that gives employees free bicycles to help reduce individual carbon footprints.

To further reduce the carbon footprint associated with operations, Google retrofit its global offices with high-efficiency lighting and better building control systems, including heating and cooling, indoor water use, and irrigation. Google also claims to operate the largest U.S. corporate shuttle bus service, which takes more than 1,500 employees to Mountain View daily. The shuttle buses uses biodiesel.

In areas of Europe, the cost of carbon is factored into the cost of power, but this pricing structure has not yet hit the U.S. Google is also applying shadow prices -- the theoretical cost of carbon under a regulated market -- to its operational decisions.

"The cost of carbon isn't built into the cost of energy in the U.S., but I expect there will be regulations at some point," Weihl said. "We are using a range ... [of] $10 or $20 per ton of carbon, providing a way for our planners to factor in the potential impact of carbon regulations in the future."

Google's green initiatives

Google is also taking part in a larger effort to spearhead environmentally efficient business practices. In 2007, together with Intel, the company co-founded Climate Savers Computing, an industry initiative to increase computer efficiency and cut carbon emissions by 54 million tons a year by 2010.

The company also claims to support changes to public policy, such as setting energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards, price signals for greenhouse gas emissions, and increased public spending on energy efficiency and renewable R&D.

Google has partnered with Environmental Resources Trust Inc. (ERT), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to protect and improve the environment, in order independently certify the company's carbon footprint, which it will continue to do annually.

Wiley Barbour, executive director of ERT, said Google has performed a greenhouse gas inventory and had its carbon footprint verified through ERT, but he did not provide details.

Other companies are diving into the green project, including Cisco Systems Inc., which is opening a "greener" data center in Richardson, Texas. Cisco expects the Richardson-based data center to be online by spring 2008. The company is also investing in energy saving measures and exploring renewable energy sources such as solar, co-generation and fuel-cell projects.

"The fundamental reason to do all of this is we feel it is our responsibility," said Google's Weihl. "Climate change is a serious issue, and we all have a responsibility to do something about it. If we all turn away and say someone else will do it, we'll find no one will. The small changes we make do have an impact."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

And check out our data center news blog at serverspecs.blogs.techtarget.com.


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