Is Google Powering Its Data Centers With Wind? No, And 2010 Won't Be The Breakthrough Year For Clean Energy In The DC Either

As green IT plans persist through 2010, I'm starting to receive questions from IT infrastructure and operations professionals — particularly data center managers — about the use of cleaner energy sources (e.g. wind, solar, fuel cells, hydro) to power their data center facilities. So when Google recently announced its purchase of 114 megawatts of wind power capacity for the next 20 years from a wind farm in Iowa, I got excited, hopeful of a credible example I could refer to.

But as it turns out, Google will not be using this wind energy to power its data centers. . . yet. Despite Google stating that the wind capacity is enough to power several data centers, their Senior Vice President of Operations, Urs Hoelzle, explains that, "We cannot use this energy directly, so we're reselling it back to the grid in the regional spot market." I confirmed this in electronic conversations with two other industry insiders, Martin LaMonica (CNET News) and Lora Kolodny (GreenTech), who also covered the announcement.

And it's unfortunate since Google's $600 million data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa could likely benefit from the greener, and possibly cheaper, wind energy. But Iowa is a large state and it's likely that distribution of the wind energy is an issue since the Council Bluffs data center appears to be well over a 100 miles away from their wind farms several counties away.

The situation takes me back to earlier this year when Google was cited on 60 Minutes for using the Bloom Box fuel cell to power its data centers. After some further investigation it turned out this was not actually the case. According to a Google spokesperson, "These fuel cells aren't powering any off-site data centers. . . Instead, Bloom fuel cells are powering a portion of Google's energy needs at our headquarters right here in Mountain View." And Forrester believes this is for good reason due to potential uptime issues and higher energy costs.

So why is the data center lagging in its use of cleaner energy? In conversations with data center managers and IT vendors, I've found that there is still a great deal of uncertainty around:

  • Uptime and resiliency: "My data center needs power 24x7x365, not just when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing."
  • Return on investment: "I pay $0.06 per kilowatt hour for coal — solar would be three times that, plus the capital investment of the panels."
  • Priorities: "While reducing energy costs might make sense, my SLAs don’t include anything about increasing my use of renewable energy."

There is a silver lining, however. While the use of cleaner energy has been slow to pick up in the data center, there are numerous high profile examples of its application in corporate campuses, skyscrapers, manufacturing facilities, and retail stores. Last year Forrester's TechRadar on green IT 1.0 technologies assessed the use of "clean energy technologies to power the data center" and IT buyers and the vendors alike were confident that over time clean energy will offer significant cost and environmental benefits to data center owners. But as far as I can see, 2010 isn't going to be the breakthrough year.

*Google Energy LLC is an entity formed last December that allows Google to procure large volumes of renewable energy by participating in the wholesale market.

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Shameless solicitation: Want to help me with my research? If your data center, or one you know of, is being powered by cleaner energy (e.g., wind, solar, fuel cells, hydro) I would like to hear about your experiences. If you’re interested, please post a comment below or send an email to dwashburn@forrester.com and I will follow up with you.