Intel Testing Solar Power for Data Centers

Intel (INTC) has installed solar panels at a facility in Rio Rancho, New Mexico to test the potential for using photovoltaic solar energy to provide power for data centers.

Rich Miller

January 19, 2009

3 Min Read
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Intel has installed solar panels at a facility in Rio Rancho, New Mexico to test the potential for using photovoltaic (PV) solar energy to provide power for data centers. The array of 64 Sharp solar panels will generate 10 kilowatts of electricity, just a fraction of the amount needed to power most data centers. But the project could "potentially lead the way for a more aggressive solar program within Intel,”  according to Marty Sedler, Intel’s director for global utilities and infrastructure.

Intel's John Miner told local media the solar array will be used with data center containers, which require less total power than traditional data centers. The project also examine the potential for solar panels to provide supplemental power during the summer, when local utilities see peak usage and are most likely to face capacity challenges.

Solar energy 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 PV solar panels to produce even a fraction of the energy required by most data centers. 

Only one small commercial data center is fully supported by solar power. But the emergence of containers presents intriguing possibilities for joining modular systems and renewable energy, and Intel isn't the first company to explore this concept.

At last May's CeBIT trade show,  Sun Microsystems (JAVA)  demonstrated a solar Blackbox shipping container hooked to a 700 square foot array of solar panels, which produced about 10 kilowatts of power. That's barely enough power to support a single rack in a typical high-density configuration in a Blackbox (since renamed the Sun MD).

By some estimates it takes up to 100,000 square feet of solar panels to generate 1 megawatt of power. Another barrier is cost. Google's lead green energy evangelist,  Bill Weihl, said last year that photovoltaic solar energy currently costs about 25 to 30 cents a kilowatt, which is “completely out of range” with all other power sources. Aberage utility power rates run between 5 and 13 cents in most states.

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 with a 400 square foot server room. AISO powers its data center with 120 solar panels that generate DC power, which is then run through an inverter and stored in batteries.

Microsoft created a stir last year when it said it intended to install solar panels at its new data center in San Antonio, but later said it designed the facility to support rooftop solar panels if and when solar becomes a more viable option. 

A number of web hosting providers, including DreamHost and Rackspace, tout their carbon-neutrality, but this is usually achieved by purchasing carbon offset certificates.

The Intel project continues the company's research on energy innovations at Rio Rancho. Last year the company used outside air to cool a high-density data center at the New Mexico site, even as temperatures ranged between 64 and 92 degrees and the servers were covered with dust. This technique, known as air side economization, is being used by a growing number of data centers seeking to reduce their cooling bills.  

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