Can Data Centers Can Make the Grid Greener?

NEW YORK – Can the combined purchasing power of the data center industry make renewable energy more accessible? Joe Kava believes that it can. Kava, who heads that data center team at Google, said Tuesday that the company’s power purchasing agreements will add more than 200 megawatts of wind power to the local utility grids that support its data centers.

Kava believes this model could work on a larger scale, giving a greener tint to the power supporting the growth of the Internet, and boosting the viability of new companies seeking markets for renewable energy.

“I’d like to challenge the industry to pool its resources,” said Kava, the Senior Director of Data Center Services, at the DataCenterDynamics New York conference Tuesday. “Why can’t we, as an industry, form a consortium to buy renewable power and push it to the grid. That way we can green the power we are all using.”

Purchasing Agreements as Key Tools

Such a strategy could build upon the Google’s use of power purchase agreements (PPAs) to offset the carbon impact of its data centers. The search giant has used these agreements to procure 111 megawatts of wind energy in Iowa, and another 101 megawatts in Oklahoma. In these deals, Google strikes long-term contracts to buy energy from companies that operate wind turbines, and then resells that power to the utility grid through the regional spot market, taking advantage of Google’s new status as an energy trading company.

“To us, it’s about increasing the content and percentage of renewables on the grid,” said Kava. “If we can increase the green content on that grid, we’ll also green our data center.”

At DataCenterDynamics, Kava discussed Google’s approach to making its data centers carbon neutral, which features a three-pronged approach – reduce, renew and remedy. On the reduce front, Google continues to improve the energy efficiency of its data centers. Google has reduced its annualized Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) from 1.21 in 2008 to 1.14 in the most recent quarter. The “remedy” piece involves the purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs).

Power Priced for the Long Haul

The “renew” piece of the equation features the power purchase agreements, where Google uses its bulk purchases to stimulate additional generation of renewable energy and offset the impact of its facilities on the local utility grid. Kava says the economics of these agreements are designed for the long term, as coal-fired power might be cheaper than wind generation at present.

“We might take a loss (at first),” said Kava. “But over a 20-year period, I’m betting the price of power will go up.”

Google’s renewable power purchase agreements have been praised by Greenpeace, the environmental group that has been a leading critic of the data center industry’s reliance upon grid power that is primarily sourced from coal. Greenpeace says PPAs are a better option that renewable energy credits because they can boost the generation of wind power and other renewables.

“There are still significant gaps in the private sector financing needed to deploy (renewable energy) at scale across many markets,” Greenpeace wrote in a 2011 report on cloud computing and energy. “IT companies such as Google and Intel have demonstrated increasing interest in making direct clean energy investments, rather than purchase offsets or RECs to manage their emissions footprint. In other words, these companies can invest much-needed capital into the development and deployment of renewable energy instead of ‘renting’ the clean attributes of renewables generated by others.”

Kava said he hasn’t yet discussed his idea for a data center power-buying consortium with other companies. A key question is how such an effort would be organized. Google has an existing subsidiary (Google Energy) which can buy and sell power on the wholesale market, positioning it as a potential leader in such an effort.

The challenge is out there. Will other companies respond? Can a consortium approach work? Share your opinion in the comments.

Wind turbine image by Leaflet via Wikimedia Commons.

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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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  1. As we look to the future of and discuss power, we must remember that hydro power is also a Renewable Energy source with a lower cost per kWH than wind or solar. In areas where hydro power is abundant - Pacific Northwest, Northeast, etc., hydro will give the best cost/benefit ratio. In areas mentioned above - Iowa, Oklahoma, wind and solar, while expensive at this time, should provide lower cost power in the future with a better environmental impact over coal.

  2. Google's innovative approach to buying and then disseminating renewable energy to the regional grid is inspiring and should serve as an example to other companies who want to get involved with “green” initiatives. We at GrowGreen Power believe that the best way for the United States to become an energy independent nation is for companies to coalesce their efforts in the way that Mr. Kava has suggested. If more independent companies voluntarily make direct clean energy investments, as Google has, it will not only go a long way toward furthering the development and deployment of renewable energy, but it will likely expand the usage of renewable technology must faster than waiting for legislation or regulatory adjustments to encourage its use on a national scale. GrowGreen Power applauds Mr. Kava and Google’s efforts and we welcome and encourage such a discussion that promotes these kinds of innovative approaches to the use and expansion of renewable energy technology.