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Utilities team up to cut data center energy usage

Key utilities around the country form a coalition that will explore ways to get data centers to cut their energy use.

High-efficiency, power-saving servers and technologies, such as virtualization, are catching on as a way to cut down on electricity costs, but energy-efficiency programs have a long way to go.

That's why Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) of California announced it is leading the formation of a national utilities coalition to coordinate energy-efficiency programs for the high-tech sector, focusing on data centers.

"It's pretty obvious that data centers consume a ton of electricity and finding ways to lower their power consumption is extremely important to the entire region (surrounding the data center), and it helps the environment because we are slowing the need for new power plants," said Mike Durand of Massachusett's Nstar, a member of the coalition.

Other organizations that have signed on to the effort so far include TXU Electric Delivery of Texas, Austin Energy and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

The new coalition will look for ways to improve energy efficiency in new and existing data centers, which according to PG&E, can use up to 100 times the energy per square foot of typical office space.

Pierre Bull, a representative of NYSERDA, said that organization has focused on research and development. The creation of one unified group with a shared goal will move energy-efficiency innovation forward.

"We are asking how we will meet power needs in the future, particularly with concern to data centers," Bull said. "This (coalition) is a way for us to share information with organizations all over the country."

But being new, the coalition does not have any concrete measures in place as of yet.

Areas with relatively low-cost power and access to high-bandwidth Internet infrastructure, are experiencing significant growth in the number of data centers being built. In the Northwest for example, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and other companies are building new facilities, reported Stacey Hobart, corporate communications manager for the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA).

"The electric load represented by these facilities is significant and it is in everyone's best interest to build in as much efficiency as possible," Hobart said. "Providing efficiency keeps costs low for everyone."

Green incentives

Nstar is pushing its customers toward green computing by offering customers who upgrade their equipment to more energy-efficient models, Durand said.

"The cost of buying the most energy-efficient products is what keeps people from buying them, so we give them incentives to offset the cost in addition to the monthly savings in energy costs they'll see," Durand said.

PG&E is also paying customers in the high-tech sector for pursuing energy-efficiency projects. The company approved a plan in November to reimburse up to 50% of the costs of a server consolidation project, including software, hardware and consulting, up to a maximum of $4 million per customer.

To date, about a dozen companies have signed up for the program, said Mark Bramfitt, supervisor of the customer energy-efficiency program for PG&E.

One PG&E customer made use of virtualization technology to consolidate 230 servers onto just 11 new machines and is now considering a second project to consolidate an additional 1,000 servers, the company reported.

Most companies are increasing efficiency piece by piece, like employing virtualization to cut back on servers, but no one has invested in a full upgrade of servers, power and cooling, yet, he said.

"I would love to see a customer come to me for a complete upgrade and consolidation. They would easily save one-third to one-half their data center energy costs, but people just aren't ordering full end-to-end upgrades, yet," Bramfitt said.

The reason full-scale efficiency upgrades haven't happened is that the "IT guys" who order equipment for data centers rarely see the electricity bills, Bramfitt said.

"Reliability is the utmost importance to them, and energy isn't a concern for them, unless they are running into issues with things, like power and cooling," Bramfitt said.

Bramfitt's motivation in trying to reduce power consumption is personal, since PG&E is spending $950 million a year [to buy and generate] power, and he is responsible for reducing usage.

Data centers are the places where significant savings can be made, since these facilities use around 2% of the total power consumed in PG&E's region, he said.

And energy prices continue to rise. By 2009, IDC in Framingham, Mass., predicts that technology operations in the U.S. will spend twice as much for power and cooling as they did to buy the server hardware in their data centers.

National scrutiny In addition to private sector groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Energy Star Program is tackling the problem of data center energy consumption.

Even the federal government is getting in on the act. The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to study and promote the use of energy-efficient computer servers in the U.S. The final results of the study, set for release to Congress this June, will project growth in energy use of U.S. computer servers and data centers, assess potential cost and energy savings related to computer server and data center energy-efficiency improvements, and assess potential incentives and voluntary programs for promoting energy-efficient computer servers and data centers, the EPA reported.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Bridget Botelho, News Writer

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