Tech’s own data centres are their green showrooms

Two Silicon Valley companies are showcasing technology in their own facilities to demonstrate how energy-efficiency can help companies act green and save green.

Sun Microsystems Inc. is showing the public Tuesday how server consolidation and other efforts reduce energy costs, while Fujitsu Computer Products of America Inc. has plugged in a new hydrogen fuel cell generator to supply some of the power to its offices in Sunnyvale, California. Server sprawl, rising energy costs and global climate change concerns have made the finance people at many businesses finger their IT departments as the biggest energy waster in the company.

Data centres across the U.S. consumed about 61 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 2006, roughly 1.5 percent of the total U.S. electricity consumption, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But those same finance people need to see a favorable return on investment (ROI) before approving a data center upgrade.

Already, Hewlett-Packard Co. has consolidated 85 of its data centres worldwide into six, while IBM Corp. will replace 3,900 servers in its data centres worldwide with 30 mainframe computers.

Sun has scheduled a webcast event Tuesday at its Santa Clara, California, headquarters touting its Eco Innovation Initiative of building energy-efficient data centres in Santa Clara, Blackwater in the United Kingdom, and Bangalore, India.

In Santa Clara, for instance, Sun reduced its server count to 1,240 from 2,177 and its storage hardware count to 225 from 738, all while achieving a fourfold increase in computing power. The upgrade reduced Sun’s electrical use to 500 kilowatts, from 2.2 million megawatts, and earned Sun a US$1 million rebate from the local electrical utility, Silicon Valley Power.

But even Sun had to convince its finance people to approve the project, said Dave Douglas, vice-president of Eco Responsibility at Sun.

“It’s really a fairly new idea that the energy efficiency will pay for these systems,” Douglas said, adding that Sun’s project will pay for itself in three years. He suggests companies do a small project in a part of the data centre first, and if they can quantify the ROI from that, “it would get the finance people all excited about it.”

Rebates also figured into Fujitsu’s installing a hydrogen fuel cell generator at its offices in Sunnyvale, which was christened Aug. 17.

The 200-kilowatt generator is fueled by natural gas, which, while it generates carbon dioxide, captures waste heat and uses it to heat the building’s water and air.

Fujitsu qualifies for a US$500,000 rebate on the capital cost of its generator from Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the utility serving most of Northern California, which pays US$2,500 per kilowatt for a qualifying clean energy project. Renewable energy projects such as wind or methane gas qualify for a $4,500 per kilowatt rebate. PG&E has a separate rebate program for solar.

“Fuel cells are an area of growing interest,” said David Rubin [cq], a director of PG&E, who estimated there are about 20 other hydrogen fuel cell projects in development in PG&E’s service area. “If you install it in a way that you can use the waste heat generated. … you’re backing off your use of natural gas [from PG&E] to heat water or the air.”

Such projects still need rebates to get funded, said Homer Purcell, vice-president of sales for UTC Power, a unit of United Technologies Corp., which built the generator.

While not revealing what Fujitsu spent, Purcell said a typical hydrogen fuel cell generator may cost $900,000 plus $250,000 for installation. Financial incentives to offset that kind of capital cost of are “critical” to approving such projects, he said.