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Data center industry unites to drag LEED into green IT

Recently, data center industry groups united to propose a green data center certification benchmark to the USGBC, which modifies its LEED rating system to apply to data centers.

Several of the largest organizations in the data center community recently banded together for a single cause: to petition the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to adopt a green building certification for data centers.

For more on LEED certification and data center energy efficiency:
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The coalition includes the Green Grid, the Uptime Institute, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (or ASHRAE) and other organizations and was spearheaded by Ray Pfeifer of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and SynapSense and William Tschudi of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (LBNL).

The goal of the effort is to develop a rating system for green data centers that the USGBC would adopt under its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program.

LEED data centers: A square peg in a round hole
The LEED rating system is the de facto green building standard, with thousands of certified facilities in the U.S. and countless noncertified facilities using the criteria for an unofficial construction guideline.

The third-party certification was developed to benchmark the environmental friendliness of commercial office buildings and has branched out to include narrower certifications for new construction, renovation, retail facilities and even private homes. The LEED green certification became a new construction standard for many large companies, and organizations began trying to apply LEED to data centers.

If [LEED certification in data centers] is about application and execution, we have an interest.
Rich Banta,
co-ownerLifeline Data Centers

Unfortunately, it didn't quite work. LEED certification is based on a points system, weighted toward commercial office buildings full of workers, not industrial facilities with minimal employees and filled to the brim with servers.

LEED points are awarded for indoor air quality for workers, large installations of windows and skylights, and points for bike racks and alternative transportation. While these features are environmentally significant considerations for an office building full of people, they didn't contribute to data center greenness.

But that didn't stop companies from trying, and a handful of data center facilities have been certified under the LEED rating systems. But in these cases, data center designers had to bundle a small data center footprint into a larger office project, focus on design incentives that didn't deal with the data center energy load, or even game the numbers on the Energy and Atmosphere Minimum Energy Performance prerequisite. (For more, see Kevin Dickens' excellent article in Engineered Systems Magazine.

Data center operators speak with one voice
For the past four years, various data center industry groups have approached USGBC about developing a standard specifically for data centers, but the organization has avoided addressing LEED for data centers, as data centers are a small segment of the total real estate market. But by speaking with a combined voice, the data center industry has finally gotten the USGBC's ear.

"For the USGBC, it's a market share thing," Pfeifer said. "But with these organizations and end users coming to a consensus, and the emphasis on data centers by the Environmental Protection Agency, the USGBC got the hint that there is enough demand."

The LEED data center working group contacted the USGBC prior to submitting its draft proposal, and Pfeifer said the organization was supportive. "They've bought into looking at it," Pfeifer said. "The preliminary feedback is that it's not going to fit very well into the LEED standard they just released, but they're going to come back to us with some comments."

The LEED data center draft proposal is available on the LBNL website. Developed by data center organizations and end users, the draft outlines which traditional LEED criteria should be omitted for data centers and which data center-specific measures should be emphasized.

The draft, for example, eliminates commuter credits, such as public-transportation access and bike racks, as data centers have few employees per square foot. It also removed sections regarding points for using rapidly renewable materials and sustainably certified wood. It deleted sections regarding employee comfort, like indoor air quality, temperature controls, daylighting(or access to natural light) and acoustic controls. But the draft adds criteria for diesel fuel storage and handling for backup generators, development impacts on the local power grid and sewage, and offers credits for mitigating noise impact from generators and cooling towers. Most important, the working group added sections requiring increased monitoring, submetering and reporting of data center infrastructure efficiency.

Is there a demand for LEED data centers?
Corporations don't pursue LEED certification out of altruism -- they do it for the PR. The positive press from LEED certification is huge. And while it can add around 4% to the cost of a construction project, most organizations that pursue LEED say they recoup that cost in operational savings.

Rich Banta, the co-owner of Lifeline Data Centers said he looked at LEED certification briefly in the early planning stages of a retrofit of a 60,000 square foot data center built within an abandoned shopping mall in Indianapolis.

But he quickly ran into problems. "LEED doesn't fit a purpose-built facility with no windows and five employees," he said. Lifeline would be interested in a new LEED standard specifically designed for data centers, but not if LEED standard mandates certain products an organization has to buy. "If [LEED certification in data centers] is about application and execution, we have an interest," he added.

Tom Guinn, the chief of data center construction for the colocation firm CRG West is working toward LEED Silver on a new data center in Santa Clara that he hopes to have this completed by the fourth quarter of 2009.

"I think LEED is worth pursuing," Guinn said. "Currently, the USGBC format doesn't fit the data center environment at all. But some people are still pursuing it, and we're one of them."

According to Guinn, companies seek a competitive edge. "We'd take great pride in having the LEED placard on the front lobby on the building. Any builds we do in the future, LEED is going to be part of that effort."

Others in the industry were less impressed by LEED and have held off, but may be interested as this draft standard proceeds. "We have not paid much attention to LEED because it was never created for data centers," said Ben Stewart, the senior vice president of facilities at the data center real estate firm Terremark Worldwide Inc. "LEED simply doesn't address the real issue with data centers: enormous energy consumption. It seems a little silly that a data center can secure a LEED certification by slapping some bike racks on the property, collecting rainwater, recycling trash while doing very little to increase energy efficiency and reducing carbon footprint."

But Stewart said if USGBC created a LEED certification that is better tailored to the areas where the data center is most environmentally offensive, Terremark would be interested in pursuing certification.

A LEED data center certification is a natural fit for hosting companies and search engine giants competing for business and good press, but surprisingly several high-profile businesses from other vertical markets have been involved with the development of the LEED data center draft, including Target Corp., Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Disney Animation and Citigroup.

Will LEED help solve the IT energy crisis?
"People are desperately looking for a meaningful way to describe greenness in the data center," said Albert Esser, Dell's vice president of power and infrastructure. "Both LEED and PUE [power usage effectiveness] are focusing on the facility aspect only. I think in the IT industry, these measures need to be converted into productivity measures. .

"IT improvements can double or triple effectiveness, whereas facility-level actions are only able to deliver 20% to 30% improvements. Focusing on facilities is leaving so much on the table."

Esser said it is an ill-conceived notion that a data center with a low PUE and high LEED score is more efficient than a data center with an average facility infrastructure and highly utilized servers.

"Compare this to public transportation," he said. "Let's say you have three people in a 50-seat bus. If you wanted to make the system more efficient, you would do a better job getting 30 people on the bus instead of making new efficient buses and putting three people in the seats."

What did you think of this story? Write to's Matt Stansberry about your data center concerns at You can also check out our Data Center Facilities Pro blog.

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