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Monday, April 26, 2010

Three cheeers: Facebook favors EE over RE

The Merc Sunday carried an AP story (also in Business Week) about how Greenpeace is upset at Internet companies for not using clean power on their datacenters. The BBC had a version of the story last month.

The Green peace criticism is particularly harsh for Facebook for building a datacenter in Prineville, Oregon, because the local utility uses coal instead of the hydro power commonly found elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Datacenters are certainly important: the AP reports an EPA estimate that in 2006 they accounted for 61 billion kilowatt hours, or 1.5% of the nation’s grid power.

The charge is somewhat spurious: in the short term, having company X buy more RE means that there is less RE available to sell to company Y (or consumer Z). In the long term, it’s possible that greater demand for RE will push up the supply of RE, but in the near term the supply of RE — particularly hydro, solar and wind — seems to be growing as fast as is possible.

(Of course, firms like Google etc. that add their own onsite generating capacity are certainly increasing the supply of RE and reducing the demand for grid power overall).

Instead, Facebook is choosing approach both reduced costs and power purchased from the grid. By building its datacenter in a location with good natural cooling, it hopes to dramatically reduce its AC bill.

As the AP reported:
In most data centers, cooling the servers takes nearly as much electricity as running the servers themselves. Facebook hopes its new cooling system will take only 15 percent as much power as the computers. Facebook is also shooting for a gold rating from the green building standard known as LEED.

The climate is important. Even in summer, nights are cool. The center can take in outside air for free. When temperatures rise, a high-tech swamp cooler blows dry air over water, and the evaporation lowers temperatures. In winter, hot air from the servers is blown into office space.
In other words, by emphasizing energy efficiency, Facebook will pull less power from the grid (from any source), leaving that power (both RE and non-RE) available for other sources. In the long term, that will do more to provide a net reduction in CO2 emissions than any effort to shift some uses to RE.

As Matthew Humphries of geek.com concluded:
I don’t think any of the tech companies are dismissing renewable energy and trying to save power. The fact is, energy is expensive so any way it can be saved is thought about and implemented. Datacenters are starting to ditch air conditioning in favor of natural airflow through buildings, for example.

Hydropower, solar, and wind are all being used if they are accessible to a datacenter, and Google has also started experimenting with wave power and creating floating datacenters. Some datacenters route their waste heat to act as heating or a power source for other buildings. There’s also the introduction of Bloom Energy, which relies on natural gas, but uses significantly less fuel to generate energy. It’s a power source of the future, but is already in use at a number of technology campuses.

Greenpeace are right to highlight the need to focus on renewable energy, but I believe this is one area where the companies running these centers will jump to renewable and clean energy wherever possible because it is cheaper and more reliable going forward.
EE is decidedly unsexy, but every kilowatt-hour saved is one less kWH that has to be generated. Efforts by datacenters to reduce energy consumption — whether from servers, networking equipment, A/C or anything else — are a win-win proposition for the operators, the grid and the environment.

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