Pressure is on to make data centers green

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Articles - June 2010
Thursday, May 27, 2010

 

Facebook is the fourth tech company to site a large proprietary data center in Oregon. Google launched a data center the size of two football fields in The Dalles in 2006. Amazon started building a comparably huge data center in Boardman in 2008, but it’s on hold due to the recession. And Intel, which makes chips for the servers that fill data centers, has a large data center in Hillsboro.

Google and Intel’s data centers, and Amazon’s planned data center, guzzle electricity as well, but they rely more heavily on carbon-free hydropower. The Google data center in The Dalles is estimated to use 103 megawatts an hour at peak, equivalent to the needs of more than 73,000 homes.

Hydropower has its own costs, but Greenpeace singled out Facebook because the utility that serves Prineville, Pacific Power, gets 58% of its energy from coal, a major contributor to climate change.

But coal is often the most affordable option for a data center that needs power 24 hours a day. Hydropower has become more costly now that the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the Columbia River, has closed the loophole that let data centers get it on the cheap. The customer-owned utilities along the Columbia that receive federally subsidized power pass on their discounts to Google and other companies, but under new rules recently negotiated by BPA, the data centers of the future will have to buy their power at market rates.

And there will be more data centers. Thanks to the growth of the Internet and the popularity of cloud computing, these facilities are popping up all over the nation. That new visibility is subjecting them to public scrutiny for the first time. The Environmental Protection Agency adopted a standard metric for data center efficiency in April and will roll out Energy Star labels for data centers this month that would require third-party verification.

The EPA’s voluntary standards imply the possibility of mandatory standards, which coupled with the possibility of carbon pricing add up to strong incentives to improve efficiency. Regulation could mean serious costs for owners of power-hungry data centers. Giants such as Google have massive carbon footprints from gobbling electricity. Exactly how massive is unknown, but Intel, for example, has 100,000 servers worldwide. It’s estimated that Google has more than 1 million.

0610_Data02

DATA CENTERS: BY THE NUMBERS

 

Cost of Facebook's new data center in Prineville: $188.2 M
Full time jobs created by Facebook data center: 35
Percent of average wage Facebook's employees will earn: 150
Years Facebook will not have to pay personal property taxes in Prineville: 15
Percent of U.S. carbon emissions that come from electricity generation: 41
Percent increase of electricity used to power data centers since 2006: 100
Intel's energy bill in Oregon: $55 M

Sources: EPA, Intel, Facebook, Fortis Construction

Picture a very large, sleek-looking building that is very wide open inside. Inside there will be row, after row, after row of servers all stacked up to a man’s height,” says Ken Patchett, manager of the Facebook data center and former manager of the Google data center in The Dalles. “It’s kind of like a factory. Not like a tire manufacturing factory, but a factory nonetheless.”

He’s describing Facebook’s new Prineville data center, and so far, it sounds like your average server farm. Data centers usually have generators, cooling towers or chillers, possibly a power substation and miles of wiring under the floor. These climate-controlled warehouses hold racks of servers that take care of all the data and software on the Internet. They store e-books, Facebook profiles and websites, and perform all the work for search engines such as Google and services such as TurboTax.

But none of the other large data center owners will say how many servers they have or exactly how much power or water they use or plan to use. “We don’t comment about the power consumption on any of our facilities,” a spokesman for Google said woodenly, before laughing and adding, “Sorry!” Amazon responded to an official interview request by email within 60 seconds with a “No thank you.”

One reason for the secrecy may be that the answers would alarm us. But the commonly stated reason, protecting trade secrets, is probably also true. Companies see arsenals of servers as a competitive advantage. But designing a new generation of efficient data centers would be an even greater advantage. The trend even has its own buzzword: “data center greening,” and even though Greenpeace is not impressed, that’s what Facebook is doing in Prineville.

Much of the electricity used in data centers goes toward cooling. Without cooling, a room of servers will go from 70 degrees to 120 degrees in two minutes. Facebook’s data center, which is designed to achieve LEED Gold certification, won’t use the energy-sucking chillers that circulate water to cool servers in a standard data center. Instead, Facebook plans to use outside air to keep things cool. This “free cooling” system works best in arid climates, part of what tipped the scales in favor of Prineville. Patchett estimates it will cut energy use by 20% to 30%.

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