Energy Notes: Bramfitt to Depart PG&E

Energy Notes: Mark Bramfitt, the electric utility industry's most visible ambassador to the data center sector, says he is leaving his post at PG&E. But before he goes, Bramfitt shares lots of insights on trends in data center energy efficiency and power usage.

Rich Miller

October 16, 2009

3 Min Read
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Mark Bramfitt, who has been the electric utility industry's most visible ambassador to the data center sector, will soon be leaving his post at PG&E. Bramfitt, the Principal Program Manager for Customer Energy Efficiency at the California utility, revealed his departure during a presentation Thursday at the Data Center Energy Efficiency Summit sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. Bramfitt, who has been with PG&E for 25 years, didn't announce his plans.

Bramfitt has been a familiar face at industry conferences as PG&E has rolled out a series of incentive programs to encourage data center operators to conserve energy by using more efficient technology and products. He has also been an organizer of the Utility IT Energy Efficiency Coalition, a consortium that now includes 45 power companies.

Bramfitt urged the data center industry to find ways to engage with utilities companies on efficiency initiatives, especially since these efforts get limited internal support. "There is no other utility in the country that has more than one employee working on this," Bramfitt said. "The state of the game with utilities is really tough right now. We need thought leadership on how to help utilities get into this game."

In his presentation, Bramfitt discussed some of the issues and trends in the relationship between data centers and utilities. Here are some highlights:

Thermal Storage: Bramfitt urged data centers to consider thermal storage, which uses large tanks filled with ice or glycol to store cold water for cooling systems, reducing chiller usage. “I think there's a tremendous opportunity for data centers in thermal storage," he said. "I think thermal energy storage offers this industry a reliability story.” He said Kaiser Permanente is implementing a thermal storage system in Napa, Calif. Digital Realty Trust's huge facility at 350 East Cermak in Chicago is supported by a large thermal storage system, while i/o Data Centers will use thermal storage at its huge Phoenix ONE facility. These systems allow data center operators to run 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.

Demand Response: Bramfitt said two PG&E customers are participating in demand response, a strategy to work with large customers to reduce energy usage during peak demand, and sometimes to add energy to the grid with their on-site generation. "It drives me crazy to think of data centers running 2 megawatt generators into a load bank (a testing device for generator maintenance and commissioning)," Bramfitt said. "I think there’s a way to fix the regulations to make it easier for you to run your generators more than 20 hours a year for demand response.” The key issue is air quality regulations, which limit the use of diesel generators in non-emergency situations. 365 Main in San Francisco is one of the customers. Bramfitt said he had proposed to the state utility commission that 365 Main be allowed to use natural gas for its generators and run them up to 200 hours a year, but had made no progress.

Retrofits and Incentives: Bramfitt said most of the $8 million in incentives PG&E awarded in 2008 were for new construction. "Our home run hits are with new data centers," he said. "Retrofits are more difficult. The payback is longer, and it’s difficult to implement free cooling in an existing data center. I have yet to see anyone accomplish this."

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