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PG&E invests in data center energy efficiency

Northern California utility PG&E has made headlines by offering rebates for energy efficiency in the data center. The company's programs have become a model for other utilities.

Northern California utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has made headlines by finding novel ways to offer rebates for energy efficiency in the data center. The company's programs have become a model for other utilities in the state and around the world. tracked down PG&E's Mark Bramfitt, supervisor of the customer energy efficiency program for the high tech market at his office in San Francisco to talk about how the utility is rewarding energy efficiency in the data center.
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Can you explain why PG&E wants to pay data centers to use less of its product?

Mark Bramfitt: Environmentally it's the right thing to do. We don't own any fossil fuel plants anymore. We divested those as part of industry deregulation several years ago. If I have to go out and buy another kilowatt hour for a customer, it's likely that the power is coming from a fossil fuel plant that has an environmental impact.

Below that, there is absolutely a financial message. If I go out and buy that power [to meet increased customer demand] it's going to cost me six cents a kilowatt hour. If I can pay you not to use a kilowatt hour at three cents, then there is a financial advantage. Instead of buying at six cents, I'm paying three cents.

PG&E recently started offering rebates to data centers using virtualization technology. How did that program get started?

Bramfitt: First of all, the virtualization rebate isn't a program in of itself -- it's part of our non-residential retrofit program. If you are a commercial customer and you want to do any kind of project to improve energy efficiency, you can come to me. We'll do a pre- and post project engineering calculation, and I can help pay for the project.

In the data center space we have a set strategies and calculation models to estimate energy savings. We've figured out a way to estimate the energy savings on server virtualization.

Is this calculator available publicly for data centers in other parts of the country to use?

Bramfitt: Certainly, the calculation tools and technical expertise are on our Web site, any utility or customer can access that. A customer that is thinking about doing a virtualization project at a data center in Chicago, they can plug their numbers into our calculator and get a good estimate of energy savings. They're not going to get a rebate from PG&E [laughing].

Where did the idea for the virtualization initiative come from?

Bramfitt: VMware approached us. They brought us three pilot projects up in the North Bay -- three customer sites. But the program is completely open to any virtualization project. VMware, Intel and their partners are pushing this program for us, but AMD, Sun and Microsoft all have virtualization products.

Are other utilities around the country coming to PG&E for direction in this area?

Bramfitt: I'm working with Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric and SoCal Gas. The four utilities try to offer consistent programs so that any customer in California can get the same program.

There are some utilities on the eastern seaboard -- Vermont, New York and Massachusetts -- that run energy efficiency programs, but not on the level that we do. They don't have the budget.

I know that data center customers in New York are screaming for help because of capacity issues. Con Edison who serves them doesn't have these programs -- they're run through the state. The state agency NYSERDA takes a little bit off of the bill, but it tends to do more education programs and not so much in the way of rebates.

California utilities have a budget of two billion dollars over three years for energy efficiency. That is just dwarfing anything else that's going on in the country. We're starting to hear from Canada and Japan, internationally they're looking at this sort of model to address these issues.

PG&E also promotes energy efficiency strategies for data center cooling. Is that something that's taking off?

Bramfitt: We have a series of recommendations we can make about cooling systems. They're all very well proven. Customers can save a gob-load of money and energy implementing some of these strategies. But I'll tell you right up front, we're having a hard time getting customers to adopt them.

IT guys, justifiably so, are nervous about changing cooling and backup power systems. They've got a mission to keep that equipment running and we absolutely understand that. But what we're finding is that customers are running a chiller plant around the clock, 8,760 hours a year.

If I want to supply 65-70 degree air to the data center and it's 50 degrees outside, why don't I just take air from the outside and blow it into the data center? Why run the chiller? In San Jose [Calif], you can get 3,000 hours a year where it's cold enough to blow air straight from outside.

What is holding people back?

Bramfitt: The IT guys are worried. Is that air too humid? Are there contaminants in it? But you can address all of those things and make that air usable.

Also, if you have a high density data center, you'd have to take a wall out in order to blow enough air in from outside because literally there is that much heat in there. It's not for every situation.

There is an additional strategy: If you run a chiller, it has to get rid of heat it's drawing out of the space. You could run the hot water that comes out of the data center through the cooling tower outside and turn the chillers off. That's a big portion of the energy use in a cooling plant. We call that water-side economizing. That is a proven strategy and it's not introducing outside air or humidity. Customers really ought to grab that one, but again we're having a hard time convincing customers to do that.

How much savings are we talking about?

Bramfitt: Part of my play is to have a really good menu of options to drive down costs and energy use. They can pick and choose which strategies they want. They can buy energy efficient equipment, they can virtualize, fix airflow issues, outside cooling plants. If you pick a whole meal instead of al a carte, you can really drive the energy use in a data center down dramatically. I've got customers and vendors saying you can reduce energy usage in the data center by half.

If you're in a situation where you're maxed out, and I can get you down by half, that allows you several years of growth within your existing footprint.

Where are you at with adoption stage for energy efficiency planning?

Bramfitt: It's not great. The customers that are coming to us are predominantly experiencing high growth and having capacity issues. But I also want to get to the people that are just wasting a lot of energy and money. But they're not screaming because they don't think they have a problem. A lot of customers are not motivated by money. These guys are motivated to keep their data center up 24/7.

Power issues are one of the hottest topics in the data center today. Is this problem going to fade away?

Bramfitt: During the boom it had started to become an issue and people started to talk about it, and then of course there was the bust and the issue went away. I'm hopeful that it's not going to happen again. There is a lot of interest now from companies that are having incredible growth in their IT infrastructure needs. If we have a three year recession in this country, maybe people will take their eye off this ball.

When companies start seeing energy costs are only secondary to their payroll -- the global warming issues -- I don't see this going away.

PG&E participated in developing a "miles per gallon" measurement for rack servers with the EPA. How do you think the industry should publish that data?

Bramfitt: The industry right now publishes servers' top speeds and they test each others' equipment. If you say top speed is 250 miles per hour, and it's really only 200, you can bet that one of your competitors will point that out. I think the industry has a good model for publishing data. If they add the miles per gallon figure, which is what SPEC and the EPA are working on, I don't know why that wouldn't fit in with what they're recording already.

Whether that information is all in one place or not, or whether you have to go to the vendors' individual sites, it doesn't really matter. As long as it's reported in a transparent fashion and it's self-policing. It may be that the EPA runs a Web site that runs it all in one place and that would be magnificent. That way a customer doesn't have to pull up 3-4 different Web sites.

So what's next for PG&E and energy rebates?

Bramfitt: Our next big thing is going to be thin client. I'm starting to hear from corporations that say they want to take the PCs off the desks and centralize computing in the data center. If you can take 1,000 PCs and virtualize them on two boxes in the data center, there is big time energy efficiency to be had there. We're going to start meeting with vendors and customers to figure out how to calculate those savings. I got a call from a major customer in California, they're thinking of taking 30,000 PCs off of desks in California and moving that into the data center. If there is energy efficiency to be had there, we'll play.

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

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