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Thinking green, data center aims for LEED certification

Data center operator 365 Main will pay a 10% premium to get its latest facility LEED-certified, but will recoup the investment by consuming less power.

The data center hosting company 365 Main Inc. has committed to building all future data centers under U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) guidelines for Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certification, a national benchmark for the design, construction and operation of green buildings.

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Green data centers tackle LEED certification

To date, the only data centers certified by the LEED Green Building Rating System are owned by corporations with attached office space, said Marc Heisterkamp, manager of LEED corporate/investment real estate sector for the USGBC..

Tentatively, 365 Main expects to open its first LEED-certified data center in Newark, Calif. this year. The company plans to open its seventh facility, also LEED-certified, in Vernon, Calif., in 2008.

That marks a shift since 2000, when 365 Main built its first data center hosting facility in California. Back then, the option of using recyclable materials and power-efficient equipment wasn't high on the priority list, nor were they readily available, said Miles Kelly, vice president, marketing and strategy for 365 Main.

Since then, green initiatives have matured in the technology industry from low-voltage processors to efficient power and cooling equipment.

Prominent figures, like Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp., have further popularized the green trend by announcing a worldwide initiative last month to make its operations more environmentally friendly, including a goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2010.

"Data center managers may not care about power efficiency, but when the CEO of their company makes a commitment like that, [they have] to find ways to meet that goal," Kelly said.

"We have been looking for ways to lead on the (green data center) front. When we started looking at the LEED certification process, we saw an opportunity to apply those standards for any new construction," Kelly said. "All future builds by the company will meet LEED guidelines, and we expect to add at least three or four more."

It's not easy being green

Projects looking for LEED certification have to meet certain prerequisites and performance benchmarks to gain credits, which are tallied up to determine the level of LEED certification: Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

The 365 Main team plans to pursue as many "points" as possible outlined by LEED. Base certification is the minimal level the company will meet and will pursue higher levels of certification if feasible, Kelly said.

The LEED standards prescribe options for site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

LEED-certified buildings must also meet a few hard-and-fast requirements, such as standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) promoting cost-effective design practices and technologies that minimize energy consumption.

Under the direction of LEED-certified architects and engineers, 365 Main plans to obtain certification by gaining credits strategically. It will use recycled and regionally sourced construction materials and CRACs that consume 30% less energy than traditional CRACs by allowing air-conditioning units to intelligently ramp up and down to achieve required under floor air pressure.

The data center company will also use air-conditioning units with outside air economizers that use 100% outside air on days when the temperature is cool enough to achieve data center cooling requirements.

Various other improvements include energy-efficient lighting, lighting controls, water-efficient landscaping and alternative transportation modifications. Materials used in construction will be recycled and locally rendered, which also gains LEED credits, as will encouraging alternative transportation, like bikes, and providing recharge stations for electric cars, Kelly said.

Paying the premium

Being LEED-certified requires innovative budgeting, as well. The cost of building a LEED-certified data center costs anywhere from 2% to 10% extra, USGBC's Heisterkamp said.

For 365 Main, the cost is at the highest end of the spectrum. The new facility in Newark, Calif., will cost $80 million to build, including a 10% premium of $8 million extra in costs to meet LEED guidelines, Kelly said. The extra cost will be made up in increments of about $500,000 a year in power savings, plus additional savings in rebates available through its power supplier, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), awarded for energy efficiency.

The additional construction costs won't be passed on to a customer's leasing space because the extra expense will be recouped over time, Kelly said.

"We'd expect utilities to be speaking with groups like USGBC and its LEED definition group as LEED gets more popular. We are not getting a LEED tax break in Newark yet, (but) we expect regions to begin to offer them as this style of building catches on," Kelly said.

The new data center in Newark, Calif., will have spaces from 5,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet for lease. Design and construction has already begun on the 136,410-square-foot facility, which will open in Q4 2007.

Because 365 Main is a data center hosting facility, companies will bring in their own servers, which may or may not be energy efficient. This fact won't affect their ability to become a LEED-certified building.

"We won't require tenants to use low-voltage processors, but if they come to us knowing our priority (is efficiency), they will likely use efficient servers and processors. We just expect that from customers," Kelly said. "We are following the construction guidelines for the building. We can only do so much. The customer power draw can't really be limited. We'll encourage it softly."

Green peers

When 365 Main decided to make all of its future data centers as efficient as possible, the first step was research. "We read the USGBC standards, the requirements, and we signed up to be a member to have access to their people. We've learned a lot by working with the USGBC and The Green Grid. Surrounding yourself by educated experts is the first step in the process," Kelly said. "Now we are working with LEED-certified contractors who have the design and construction knowledge. It all starts with education."

Stephen Spinazzola, vice president of Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc., worked with the insurance company Highmark Inc. to build its LEED-certified data center in Pittsburgh. The data center has 28,000 square feet of raised flooring attached to office space, unlike 365 Main's facilities, which does not have office space.

Some of the ways Highmark achieved LEED Silver status was by using recycled products in the building and a specially designed cooling system relying on a rainwater cistern for some of the center's cooling related water needs.

"The most important thing is the commitment of the building owner and the team working on the project. They all have to be committed (to LEED) from the beginning and know it costs more to build," Spinazzola said.

Spinazzola said LEED certification requires smart design and a budget for extra spending here and there, as well as extra time for paperwork, since everything has to be documented. The premium from start to finish is 2% to 4% in Spinazzola's experience.

Beyond being socially responsible, the benefits of being LEED-certified are reaped over time, if slowly, through energy savings.

"Perception in the marketplace is a motivation, but with energy costs going up significantly, energy conservation is so important. When you end up paying 10 cents per kilowatt hour, you'll have a real problem if the CEO finds out the building wasn't designed for efficiency," Spinazzola said.

The aggregate power consumption by servers and data centers in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2000 to about 45 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2005, accounting for about 1.2% of the country's electricity consumption. According to a 2007 report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Dr. Jonathan G. Koomey, the electricity costs for the servers and associated infrastructure reached $2.7 billion in 2005 and are increasing steadily.

"I think (LEED certification) will eventually catch on in data centers because there are concerns surrounding their energy consumption, running 24/7. Rising energy costs will drive the desire to follow LEED guidelines," USGBC's Heisterkamp said.

Green groups

In March, PG&E recognized 365 Main's San Francisco data center for its load reduction accomplishments, while participating in PG&E's Critical Peak Pricing (CPP) program, which is designed to curtail energy load during critical peak days to offset the possibility of outages. PG&E reported that in 2006 the data center saved $70,000 in utility costs by utilizing an innovative testing procedure for backup generators.

In addition, 365 Main joined The Green Grid, a global nonprofit consortium of technology companies and professionals dedicated to advancing energy efficiency in data centers and business computing ecosystems.

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