Utilities Subsidizing Server Consolidation Efforts

PG&E paid Autodesk a rebate of $25,000 for the initial virtualization project. According to Autodesk, the company decreased peak energy demand by 13% and realized an estimated ongoing annual savings of 326,500 kilowatt-hours—enough to power 35 average U.S. households for a year. All told, this adds up to about $1 million saved in equipment and energy costs for a single year.

When I asked PG&E what was in it for them, I was thinking back to the brownouts and rolling blackouts that hit California in the early 2000s. A reduced energy footprint for major consumers like data centers would help avoid this. That was part of the equation, but for utilities there’s plenty more to consider.

“I don’t recommend this as a business model. We reward people for using less of our product,” Bramfitt joked. “There is a fundamental financial dynamic at play. We avoid building new power plants and other infrastructure that are very expensive, avoid purchasing expensive power during peak times from other utilities, and our regulatory authority rewards us for these programs.”

Bramfitt also pointed out that incentive programs turn the hype of being environmentally friendly into a reality, which, let’s face it, can be tough for utilities. “We’ve driven the California market so that per capita energy use has been dead flat now for thirty years. These programs have tremendous environmental consequences,” he said.

Measuring Success

More than 125 customer enrolled in the program success is a hard number to judge. A single large customer can drive the number of servers eliminated or consolidated way up, while a bunch of small customers can make the program look more successful than it really is.

“We judge by energy savings, and we do it in a typical utility fashion: by megawatts,” Bramfitt said. Last year, taking into account all of PG&E’s data center incentive programs, they estimate that they saved about 4 MW. This year, it should be about 7 MW, and they hope to get to about 20 MW in the coming years.

Customers seeking to do more than simply virtualize servers can earn even more incentives pursuing the green data center concept. Some energy savings ideas are as simple as redesigning the data center to have separate hot and cool aisles, with air flow maximized to remove heat and focus cooling.

So called free cooling, or relying on outside air instead of expensive air conditioning, saves money and can earn rebates. Other efficiencies that PG&E is targeting include Energy Star PCs, thin-client computing and even basic data center upkeep and repair.

Amazingly, the obvious kinds of things that consumers hear about on television newscasts each winter apply to data centers as well. “We went into one collocation facility and found holes in the floors and box fans from a hardware store hanging from the ceiling to provide cooling,” Bramfitt said. “You’re not going to be energy efficient doing that.”