How 'clean' is the source of your data center power?

The energy efficiency of cloud and IT infrastructure is super important for the bottom line, but where electricity is sourced will be scrutinized more closely in the future.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Based on the amount of public relations pitches launched at me this week by some of the bigger data center technology and cloud services players, it is clear that The New York Times article critical of the sector's energy consumption has touched some very sensitive nerves.

I actually wrote about the potential for green data center projects mere days before The New York Times piece, so I won't spend all that much time rehashing the fact that the market is expected to double between now and 2016.

But since the topic is on so many people's minds, I wanted to point out two recent developments that underscore another big consideration for data center power consumption -- whether or not the source of power driving all at IT equipment is "clean" (generated by renewable sources like solar or wind) or "dirty" (created by coal-fired power plants).

This morning, Google announced its plan to source 48 megawatts of wind-generated power from the Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA)  to run its Oklahoma data center. The electricity will come from the Canadian Hills Wind Project, which is scheduled to come online in late 2012. 

This procurement deal will bring the total amount of renewable energy that Google is sourcing for its data centers to more than 260 megawatts of capacity, according to the company's blog.


"This agreement is a milestone for GRDA because it's their first-ever wind energy project," Google wrote in its blog. "It's also a milestone for Google because it's a little different from the previous power purchase agreements (PPAs) we've signed, where we agreed to buy the energy directly from the developer who built the wind farm. This agreement, by contrast, marks the first time we've partnered with a utility provider to increase the amount of renewable energy powering one of our data centers." 

Without the wind agreement, Google would have been sourcing about half the power at this particular data center with coal-generated electricity, according to Greenpeace, which is applauding the deal. "As Google powers more of its data center fleet with clean energy, it sends a signal to other IT companies and electric utilities around the world that renewable energy is not only possible, but is simply smart business in the 21st century economy," said Gary Cook, the senior IT analyst for Greenpeace.

Google's other 20-year-long PPAs are also for wind-generated power: one commits to 114 MW of capacity from NextEra's Story County II facility in Iowa; the second is for 110.8 MW of wind-generated power from the NextEra Minco II facility in Oklahoma.

While wind is central to Google's renewable energy sourcing plan, solar is where Apple is focusing its attention. The company's data center in Maiden, N.C., will derive more than 20 megawatts of power from solar sources. That solar, along with the company's investment in Bloom fuel cells for the site, will provide power to keep the data center entirely off the traditional grid. The company's recent purchase of 200 more acres of land near the site has got people wondering if it will invest even more in solar technology there than anticipated. One can hope.

I anticipate that more companies will invest in renewable power sources or in on-site renewable energy projects to help offset their grid dependence, but it still takes deep pockets to do this.

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