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Sandy begets tree-hugging companies

More firms are plugging into gas for power, collecting rainwater

April 29, 2013 05:48 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.

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