Solar Power in Data Centers: No Longer A Novelty?

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The solar panel array on the roof of the new DataScan Technologies data center in Alpharetta, Georgia.

Solar power hasn’t been widely used in data centers because it takes a very large installation of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels to produce even a fraction of the energy required by most data centers. But the month of April has seen the debut of four new data centers featuring on-site solar generation. In each case, the power from the solar array is being used either for office space or to make a modest reduction in the amount of power required from local utilities.

While the economics of solar power remain a challenge for large users, the recent flurry of on-site solar arrays suggest that data center operators are recognizing the value of these arrays as a symbol of the industry’s commitment to sustainability.

The latest data center to go solar is DataScan Technologies, which this week opened a facility in Alpharetta,  Georgia. DataScan is a unit of JM Family Enterprises that specializes in accounting and risk management systems. DataScan says its solar array is the second-largest commercial location in Georgia, and will produce an estimated 285,500 kWh hours of electricity annually, reducing carbon emissions by 205 metric tons. The company says the solar power will reduce its data center’s energy consumption by 10 percent in 2011.

“By demonstrating our commitment to renewable energy and making sustainable choices a priority for our operations, we hope other companies will take similar actions and make a positive impact on our environment,” said Colin Brown, JM Family’s president and CEO.

Here’s a look at the three other new data centers that have unveiled solar installations this month:

Cisco Systems: The new Cisco data center in Allen, Texas has solar cells on the roof, which can generate 100 kilowatts of power for the office spaces in the building. The facility also captures rainwater for use in its irrigation systems, and is seeking LEED Gold certification.

BendBroadband Vault: This new facility in Bend, Oregon includes a solar array that can generate up to 152 kW of power, or about 18 percent of the expected power capacity of 900 kW for the first phase of the building. The Vault also purchases renewable energy credits through its utility, Pacific Power & Light, that offset the data center’s electricity use.

Facebook: The social network has installed a large array of solar panels at its new data center in Prineville, Oregon. The array can generate about 100 kilowatts of energy, with total expected production of 204,000 kilowatt hours a year. The solar power generated by the Prineville solar array will be used primarily to support the office areas and some mechanical rooms that are less power-intensive, but not the server rooms.

For more examples of on-site solar arrays, see Solar-Powered Data Centers, part of our special report, Data Centers & Renewable Energy.

About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large 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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11 Comments

  1. Maury Markowitz

    Given that data centers typically consist of large, low buildings with a huge amount of roof space compared to internal space, why *not* install panels on the roof?

  2. When solar power is no longer a novelty anywhere and with any application, only then will the antiquated energy production and consumption habits of the world be altered. Ideally every home should have solar, termal and wind power systems incorporated when built. It's actually no big deal -- but the world needs to learn that.

  3. eric

    Data center & solar array are near perfect example of mismatch. Data center must have perfectly filtered continuous electric power. Solar photovoltaic panels produce power half of time & vary with every cloud & shadow. Onsite Solar does nothing to reduce peak utility draw nor watts drawn after sunset.

  4. Kurt

    Eric, On the contrary, solar power for the data center is a very good match. Max power usage for a utility is when the sun is shining at its brightest. This is also the time of max AC usage, which is primarily electric. Power companies love it when you help shave the peak. Since photovoltaic systems produce DC power, the power is already very "clean" as you don't have that nasty alternating current to deal with. Also, the power produced by the solar arrays is certainly either being used to charge a battery bank, or it is being converted to AC and fed back into the grid where it will be conditioned before use by the data center. Finally, the solar produced power is a supplement to the power from the grid, so variations in output due to clouds and nightfall are easily and automatically accommodated. Kurt

  5. SmarterThanYall

    Eric seems to have missed that part about "supporting the office areas". _During_the_daytime_, when all those spaces use the most power by far, the solar power system can provide the most good. That's a very good match. 100 kw, or so, will drive a lot of lights, coffee makers, etc. Also, data centers, virtually all of which have extensive storage capacity already in place, would seem to be an excellent match for a power supply that "suffers" from variable output.

  6. Both the article and the comments miss the point of grid-tied solar systems. The solar power is not used primarily to supply the offices because the datacenter would need more, how would you run an office on solar power? The power is not conditioned, the solar system does not produce DC. All this is bubka. Solar systems of this size in modern day installations are grid-tied. They supply the grid. The power that is not locally used goes out onto the grid. No grid, no power. The solar system does not choose who it supplies, it is just ohms law, the power flows to the nearest power use. Just as you don't know what power station supllies your power at any one time, you don't know if your office is being supplied by your solar system. And you don't care.