Free green power for Canadian government IT

Many provincial governments are setting the wheels in motion to move their IT processing to greener IT data centres that are powered by renewable hydro-electricity.

BC is at the vanguard of this movement, and a major catalyst is the upcoming 2010 Olympics to be held north of Vancouver at Whistler Mountain, says Bill St. Arnaud, senior director of advanced networks at Ottawa-based Canarie Inc.

Last year, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell promised carbon-neutral, green-certified facilities for the event – a first in Olympic history. The province followed suit this year with its introduction of a consumer-based carbon tax, another first in North America.

This announcement has huge implications for BC’s public sector. “B.C also mandated that its public sector become carbon-neutral as well by 2010 – it was sort of slipped into the same legislation as the carbon tax announcement,” says St. Arnaud.

“There’s a bit of a panic in the province as government agencies, healthcare and educational institutions scramble to see how they can address this within two years. If they’re not carbon-neutral by then, every activity that generates carbon will be taxed – and the funds for this will come out of their budgets.”

One key area the province is eyeing to reduce consumption in the power-hogging IT sector lies in setting up and using zero-carbon data centres, he says.

Free power flows from zero-carbon data centres

Unlike other sectors, the IT industry is in a privileged position, he explains. Hydro-electric sites that are too remote and uneconomical for utilities to develop due to the complexities of long-distance transmission can nevertheless be used as dedicated power sources for data centres. Smelters and car plants can’t be moved easily to remote sites with renewable energy sources, but data centres can –  if there are fibre-optic telecom lines that can transmit data to urban centres.

Forward-thinking companies such as Google, Microsoft and e-Bay are already planning or making moves to new zero-carbon sites in remote locations, he says. There are some powerful economic incentives to do this in an era of skyrocketing and unpredictable energy costs. “The beauty of this approach is that organizations won’t be competing with other sectors for power – the zero-carbon data centre would essentially have free power.”

BC is a natural candidate for developing zero-carbon data centres, offering untapped falls in coastal areas, abandoned dams, geographic stability and proximity to power-hungry California, he says. BC Hydro is looking into development in this space, but the private sector is already on its way.

Virtual hosting specialist Rackforce is teaming with IBM to build a $100 million “GigaCentre” in its home base of Kelowna, BC. The 85,000 square foot data center will run on hydro power from the Columbia River, as do major data centres operated by Microsoft and Yahoo in Washington state and Google in Oregon. “They hope to do business not just with the BC government but with American organizations.”

Zero-carbon data centres offer other advantages, he says. While technology such as virtualization is useful in reducing the number of servers needed for processing within the current utility model, the zero-carbon data centre approach eliminates the need for it.

“There are legitimate security issues around virtualization, but an enterprise could move its servers, unchanged, to the data centre, and would only need to worry about the reliability and security of the data centre itself instead of each machine.”

There are also advantages in being off the grid, he says. Utility companies have many complex regulations in place for companies that produce their own energy but connect to the utility’s grid via transmission lines. “You must have a certain voltage, complex transformers, switching stations and so on at your site before you can connect to the grid, and then there are wheeling charges on top. Inco, for example, generates its own power for its Sudbury mine, but it pays expensive fees to use Ontario Hydro’s transmission line.”

But companies that aren’t connected to the grid aren’t subject to these complex rules or fees. “Organizations don’t need to deal with utilities to set up power-generating facilities in existing dams. Companies like General Electric and Westinghouse can look after setting up the turbines and maintenance,” he says.

“Organizations can be their own masters,” he adds. “They’ll know the cost of generating their own power for the next 20 years, which is a major advantage in a volatile energy environment.”

Greening provinces

St. Arnaud points out BC isn’t the only region with abandoned dams – there are many such sites throughout North America. “These were built during the 1920s and 1930s during the first wave of electrification, but many were abandoned by major utility companies because they were too small to be efficient. Some were also built by mining companies that wanted their own source of power nearby but were also abandoned when the ore was depleted. Google, for example, built its new data centre in an old aluminum smelter.”

Environmental groups are onside, he adds, as these are existing hydro-electric dams that have been unused for decades, not new developments that might threaten the current ecological equilibrium.

Ontario, Manitoba and New Brunswick, which have many potential sites, are also eyeing zero-carbon data centre development, as is the federal government, he says. “Almost all the provinces have task forces in place to look into reducing energy consumption by government organizations. It’s becoming increasingly popular to mandate this, as it allows provinces to show their green colours without imposing hardship on voters.”

Ontario is also building “green” data centres in Guelph, but the green refers to sustainable construction that is certified to the LEED environmental standard, not the energy source used, he says. “It’s too late to switch the site, as it was started five years ago. But they’ll need a back-up data centre for their main site, and a zero-carbon site makes sense.”

He notes there are many potential sites throughout Ontario for this. “But it would be a powerful political statement if it were sited in Northern Ontario, as this would encourage economic development in remote regions. There are places like Thunder Bay that offer renewable hydro-electric sources plus the fibre-optic telecom links needed.”

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached

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