Hosts feel California energy squeeze

With California’s high-energy crisis in the background, Web hosts and other high-tech companies that gobble up electricity are now foraging for long-term ways to meet their energy needs.

Those companies are at the centre of an on-going debate over whether or not the new, service-based economy sucks up more energy than other industrial sectors.

But there may be big differences in the way the tech economy uses electricity in comparison to other sectors, experts say.

“These companies are really different customers for the utilities companies because their electric load per square foot is unprecedented,” said Barry Johnson, senior project director at the Consumer Energy Council of America, in Washington.

Web hosts and data centre owners are facing the prospects of much higher prices from utility companies that realize that this customer set will pay premiums for uninterrupted power during peak hours.

All of these factors have hosting behemoths thinking through other options for deriving their necessary power supply.

“We are looking at options such as trying to generate our own power through things like turbine generators,” said Lloyd Howison, senior manager of construction and engineering at Ashburn, Va.-based UUNET Technologies Inc.

Such alternatives, which can be costly, are getting a long look lately given rising overall energy consumption rates across the country. Compounding the issue are the politics accompanying the massive restructuring of the energy sector.

“Like everyone else, we are somewhat alarmed and not thrilled with the situation,” Howison said.

“But choosing to invest (US)$28 million in a turbine generator for a facility means we have to equate that cost with the cost per cabinet per rack, and that translates into cost for the customer,” he said.

To offset some of the investment required to generate its own power supply, UUNET is contemplating partnerships with other high-volume energy consumers.

Having invested tens of millions of dollars into its backup system, which features redundancy planning and fault-tolerant solutions, San Jose, Calif.-based host AboveNet Communications Inc. is not concerned with sustaining service during the current energy crisis – it’s the ability to continue to sustain that level of service in the future that is in doubt.

“You have a huge new economy growing by leaps and bounds, and it absolutely relies on the availability of power,” said Jeff Munroe, vice-president of design and construction for Metromedia Fiber Networks, the owner of AboveNet. “California is still the location for collocation and services, and Silicon Valley has been white hot for three years. What’s it going to do for the industry if you’re not able to meet customer demand?”

AboveNet has three 220,000 thousand square-foot ISX collocation facilities in operation in San Jose, Calif., with a fourth under construction at the site and another being built in San Francisco, Munroe said.

As his collocation sites drain energy sources in the 95 to 98 percentile of power usage during peak periods, Munroe said he wonders if utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) can commit to providing the additional hundreds of megawatts of grid power in days to come as AboveNet and its competitors’ facilities come on-line.

“Right now PG&E is the only place to go for [energy] distribution for Silicon Valley. Over the next one to three years, we are very concerned and actively pursuing a number of options to secure the power we need,” Munroe added.

At this time, however, Howison said UUNET is sticking with its traditional strategies, which make use of the public power grid and incorporate UPS (uninterrupted power supply) technology for back up.

“But we and many others have woken up to this issue over the last eight or 10 months, and part of that is due to the issues on the West Coast,” Howison said.