Saving green with alternative energy
Only after an organization has analyzed and instrumented its data center, eliminated redundancy and re-engineered to squeeze the maximum efficiency out of its IT infrastructure should alternative power come into play. First National of Nebraska became one of the first organizations to power a data center entirely on fuel cells when it built a new data center more than a decade ago. But when it was time to order new fuel cells this year, it was able to cut the power requirements from 600 to 400 kilowatts because management of its data center infrastructure had improved.
The operating cost, at 12 cents per kwh, is almost double the 6.2 cents First National's utility would charge. But First National had designed the building to use the waste heat from fuel cells to warm its interior and melt snow on some outdoor surfaces in the winter. Fuel cells also provide a very stable power supply and meet management's goals of using renewable energy, Cole says. But, he says, "if we were building the data center today, it would be a more difficult business decision."
FedEx uses solar and fuel cells in other facilities. But after considering solar, wind and fuel cells during the design phase for the Colorado Springs data center several years ago, it decided to pass. Of those technologies, fuel cells looked the most promising. The cost of power from fuel cells couldn't match utility rates, but the business was more concerned about the availability of commercial utility power than the economics, says IT director Brad Hilliard. What killed the idea was the location of service, which at that time was concentrated on the East and West coasts. Today, however, the technology and associated support infrastructure is more mature. Were he reconsidering that decision now, Hilliard says, "We would spend more energy on that because that local utility risk is so important to manage."
Fuel cells can be very efficient for data centers because the waste heat they generate can be used to cool the facility when fed into special absorption chillers. But from a purely economic standpoint, you still need fiscal incentives, such as tax breaks, to make them a viable business proposition, says Gartner's Mingay.
Beyond the data center
KPMG's IT team has taken the lead in driving green IT initiatives that go well beyond the data center. For example, IT pitched a 500 kW solar array to the real estate group for its Montvale, N.J., campus after sustainable IT leader Darren McGann heard a colleague at Microsoft discussing a solar project it had completed. The IT group also raised average operating temperatures to 79 degrees in its data centers after seeing a demonstration where Microsoft moved part of a data center into an outdoor tent to demonstrate the robustness of IT equipment. McGann claims that KPMG's data center was the first to generate power using gas micro turbine generators, and it reuses the waste heat in combination with absorption chillers to help cool the data center.
Gas-powered microturbines are more economical than fuel cells, but you still can't make the business case on energy savings alone, says Mingay. In most locations, you still need tax breaks, capital allowances or the policy tool known as "feed-in tariffs" to make them economically viable, although it can be more attractive in locations where natural gas is inexpensive.
IT is uniquely positioned to help make the business case for, and drive, other green initiatives that go beyond the data center, PCs and office automation equipment. At KPMG, for example, it was IT business process analysis and automation expertise that helped propel an initiative to create a paperless audit system.