Sandy begets tree-hugging companies

More firms are plugging into gas for power, collecting rainwater

When Hurricane Sandy decimated a large portion of the East Coast last year, companies and their data centers wound up without electricity for days or, in some cases, even weeks.

The consequences of that and other recent severe storms are spurring some companies to plug into natural gas pipelines to fuel their electricity needs while others look to become completely energy independent -- even going as far as collecting rain to supply their water needs.

"One major turn we're starting to see is fuel cells -- methane fuel cells, natural gas fuel cells as well as a shifting to natural gas pipelines for main electrical power as opposed to grid electricity," said Kelly Quinn, a research manager for IDC's Datacenter Trends unit.

A fuel cell converts natural gas into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen. While hydrogen is the best-known fuel cell type, natural gas and methanol fuel cells are gaining ground.

Though some companies who tried to go green have reversed course because of cost concerns -- especially data center operators who tried to convert to solar energy, Quinn said -- the increased severity of storms and a changing climate has led others to rethink their location and building design.

On average, U.S. data centers have a power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating of 2.0, meaning they use as much energy for operations such as cooling as they do to run IT equipment.

For example, a data center with a PUE of 2.0 that uses 1 megawatt of power for its servers would also require a megawatt of power to light and cool the facility.

To address the enormous cost of electricity, Microsoft is building a data center beside a Wyoming landfill in order to use its methane gas to power the facility. Apple now uses a massive 100-acre solar energy farm to power its Maiden, N.C., data center. And Google has placed data centers in Oklahoma and Iowa so they can plug into wind farms.

T5 Data Centers, national data center owner and operator, says that just by choosing a better geographic location, it can drop the PUE rating to 1.2 to 1.5. The company often chooses where to place its buildings based on the local climate.

Indirect evaporative cooling units
T5's indirect evaporative cooling units atop a data center in El Segundo, Calif.

T5's new Colorado Springs campus, which is still under construction, will be able to take advantage of the high plains climate by using the cooler, drier external air to reduce air conditioning and operating costs. The location also is strategically close to the Denver Technology Center, a technology and telecommunications hub, and will serve as a central data relay center to lower latency for business-critical enterprise applications from coast to coast.

The new $800 million data center is situated on 64 acres and is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2014. When it is, instead of a water-cooled air conditioning system, the facility will use an indirect evaporative cooling system, which draws in the cool outside air and exchanges it for the heat inside the server rooms, according to Jim Bailey, chief development officer for T5 Data Centers.

The cooling units can reduce electrical costs by as much as 25%, Bailey said.

T5 has public data centers in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore. and Kings Mountain, N.C.

The Colorado Springs building will be LEED certified. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a voluntary program that provides third-party verification of green buildings. Building are rated on a 136-point scale according to how green and sustainable they are.

Bailey said T5 has been using all local materials to build the facility and has been recycling throughout the process. LEED certification also requires roofs be painted with a light color to reflect heat from the sun. T5's roof will be painted white.

One green technology T5 hasn't invested in is solar power. Bailey said the cost of solar power works to reduce costs for areas where the electricity rates are high, such as New Jersey and New York, but not so much in places like North Carolina, where it's between 3.8 to 5 cents a kilowatt hour.

"It works where you're paying 13 cents per kilowatt hour," he said.

One building that has gone all out to use solar power, as well as rain, is the Bullitt Center in Seattle.

A "living" building

Last Monday -- Earth Day -- the Seattle-based non-profit Bullitt Foundation announced the completion of its self-sustainable building, which gets all of its power and water from Mother Nature.

The office building, which is now leasing space, was built with no toxic materials and produces no waste, according to Denis Hayes, president the Bullitt Foundation.

Bullitt Buillding
The Bullitt Building under construction

The six-story, 50,000 square-foot building, located at the intersection of Capitol Hill and the Central District in Seattle, was created to meet the goals of the Living Building Challenge, a green building certification program developed by the International Living Future Institute.

For example, a rooftop solar array generates as much electricity as the building uses, and rainwater is collected on the roof and directed into an underground cistern; all wastewater is treated onsite.

Rooftop
A look down on the Bullitt Building as its roof-top solar panels are being installed

All "grey water" from sinks in the building is filtered through a green roof, where plants use the water. Pavement around the building is permeable, allowing water to infiltrate into the soil in order to reduce the impact of runoff into the nearby Puget Sound.

And motorized office windows automatically open and shut to provide natural ventilation.

Windows
The Bullitt Building's automatic windows open and close to help adjust the indoor temperature

The Bullitt Foundation describes the structure as "a living building behaving like a living organism," one that can server as a model for sustainability. It was built to last up to 250 years.

Part of the problem with constructing environmentally safe and self-sustaining commercial buildings, Hayes said, are state and local building codes, which are often outdated and restrict the use of some materials and building processes.

"If you really want to build a green building today in any city in the United States, you'll find yourself in violation of maybe two dozen regulations and laws," Hayes said.

As a result, the Bullitt Foundation worked with the city of Seattle to review its building codes to help with the creation of greener, "living" buildings.

"We didn't know what changes needed to be made in our codes, which is why we did the demo ordinance and basically said, [offer] greater flexibility but still meet community standards for designs," said Diane Sugimura, director of Seattle's planning and development.

"We've gotten to the point where incrementalism no longer is doing the trick. We've got to make giant ... leaps into a new way of doing things," Hayes said.

This article, Climate change forces some companies to go green, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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