Solar Power at Data Center Scale

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solarpanels-smallSolar power has finally reached data center scale. Phoenix IT infrastructure provider i/o Data Centers is installing a huge array of solar panels on the 11-acre roof of its new Phoenix ONE data center. The company says the photovoltaic panels will generate up to 4.5 megawatts of power to supplement the energy needs of the massive facility.

The installation planned for Phoenix ONE will dwarf all previous efforts to integrate solar power into a working data center. Its output will be nearly three times the 1.6 megawatts produced by the solar panels covering the roof of the Googleplex.

The first phase of 5,000 solar panels in Phoenix is scheduled to be operational in January, and will generate 500 kilowatt-peak (kWp), the company says. The array will be expanded in four additional phases during 2010 to reach a total capacity of 4.5 megawatts-peak.

That’s just a fraction of the 80 megawatts of power capacity that the 538,000 square foot Phoenix ONE data center will need upon completion. The solar power is also expensive, costing about 18 cents per kilowatt hour to generate in a market where grid power is 7 cents.  

Time-Shifted Cooling
But Phoenix ONE plan capitalizes on another wrinkle in power pricing: the differential between the daytime and overnight rates. The solar plant will be combined with an on-site thermal storage facility to create a time-shifted energy efficiency system.

i/o Data Centers will run its chillers at night when power is cheap, and then tap the thermal storage “battery” to provide much of the facility’s cooling during the day, reducing its power usage when electricity is most expensive. The solar power panels will further lower Phoenix ONE’s reliance on utility power during peak hours.         

“If we can generate 3 megawatts during the day, combined with our thermal storage, we can shave our power costs by about 50 percent,” said George Slessman, the CEO of i/o Data Centers. “Anything I can do to move my power consumption to off-peak hours is going to save a lot of money. Solar is the renewable approach that works best during peak daytime power pricing.”

The Challenges of Solar
Solar power hasn’t been widely used in data centers because of the large amounts of energy required to power the servers and cooling equipment in modern mission-critical facilities. It requires a very large installation of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels to produce even a fraction of the energy required by most data centers. 

The only data center currently powered entirely by PV solar power is AISO (Affordable Internet Services Online), which operates a 1,500 square foot facility in Romoland, California. Intel and Sun Microsystems have tested solar power systems generating 10 kilowatts to partially power data center containers.

PV solar is also much more expensive than grid power. Microsoft has discussed plans to install solar panels at its San Antonio data center, but said such a system wouldn’t be economically feasible in the near future. “As solar technology advances, we anticipate that solar may become a more viable option within a few years,” the company said.

The Key: Thermal Storage 
How has i/o Data Centers made solar viable? The key ingredient is a thermal storage system that will be able to cool the data center for as long as six hours per day, according to Slessman. 

Here’s how it works: The facility’s chillers cool a solution of water and 28 percent glycol. The thermal storage tank contains Cryogel ice balls, 4-inch polyethylene spheres filled with water. The balls freeze when the system is charging at night,  and then cool the glycol solution during the day. The glycol solution is then pumped through a heat exchanger, which chills water in a separate loop used in the data center.

The first phase of the thermal storage system will come online in October and provide 12,000 ton hours of thermal storage. A second phase will eventually boost capacity to 24,000 ton hours.

Meanwhile, the solar installation atop Phoenix ONE will also be growing. The roof will eventually be covered with more than 300,000 square feet of photovoltaic solar panels.    

“The vast majority of data centers don’t have 4.5 megawatts of power, period, much less 4.5 megawatts of solar power,” said Slessman. “About 5 percent of our power consumption will be offset by on-site solar.

A Sustainable Efficiency Model
This approach works particularly well in Arizona, one of the best locations in the U.S. for solar power. But i/o Data Centers is looking to expand, and is including renewable power in the equation.    

“We want to create a sustainable model for energy efficiency that we can repeat in any market around the U.S.,” Slessman said. “We want to go into markets where solar is plausible, and are looking at states that are power exporters.”

i/o Data Centers President Anthony Wanger says the focus on energy efficiency will likely increase in coming years. ”Solar, nuclear, hydro and natural gas are going to be increasingly favored,” said Wanger. “As they say in hockey, we’re skating where the puck is going.”

About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor-in-chief of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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15 Comments

  1. Jim Stack

    Finally a data center using it's smartness to be more efficient. This makes a lot of cents/sense in a sunny place like Arizona. Intel also makes faster , lower power chips so they don't create as much heat. Putting all this together is key .

  2. vow nice post it will save lot of power in data center

  3. Nice post calling for the importance of saving power and energy for the planet by the companies.

  4. Mortimer Aston

    Looking now at at Google Earth image of the building (615 North 48th, Phoenix, AZ) that was taken 3.3.11, there doesn't actually appear to be any solar installed. And it's kind of hard to miss a purported 4.5 megawatt solar plant....