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Investigating Energy Savings at Data Centers

July 19, 2010

The economy of the 21st Century is built on a foundation of knowledge and information sharing.  For companies, this accumulated knowledge is stored in vast computer data centers.  These data centers store data, network computer and information systems, and in the case of FedEx, help manage a complex worldwide operation.  A major operational and environmental cost of running these data centers, however, is the consumption of vast amounts of energy, approximately 1.5% of all electricity used in the US in 2007 according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).   That number is expected to double by 2011.

As part of the EDF Climate Corps Fellowship program, FedEx tasked our team to examine energy usage at its data centers.  One area where we have focused our efforts is finding a certification program that would recognize the energy efficiency practices already in place at FedEx’s data centers, and that would help FedEx set and design a strategy to meet future energy goals.  With FedEx’s rollout of the EarthSmart program in April 2010, this represents a great opportunity to amplify the ongoing efforts of an already energy-conscious organization. One program considered is the EPA’s Energy Star Program.

What is the Energy Star Program?
Started in 1992, the EPA’s Energy Star Program has a long history of increasing consumer awareness about energy saving products.  The Energy Star label graces everything from energy efficient washers and driers to refrigerators to new HD televisions.  By partnering with industry organizations and developing metrics that can be applied fairly across an industry, Energy Star has developed a strong credibility with consumers and garnered voluntary participation from over 17,000 public and private organizations across the country.

What does Energy Star know about buildings?
Originally applied to electronics and appliances, Energy Star’s movement into evaluating buildings greatly expanded the program’s reach.  Although the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification process has traditionally been the standard for measuring the “greenness” of structures, Energy Star focuses on one critical life cycle cost that can often be undervalued in the existing LEED standards: energy use.  Energy Star certification focuses on the energy efficiency of structures, and has already certified over 10,000 buildings and plants, including other heavy energy consumers like hospitals, hotels, and grocery stores.

Recognizing the large energy footprint of data center operations, Congress directed the EPA in 2007 to evaluate the inclusion of data centers in its Energy Star program.  The EPA expanded the Energy Star certification program to include data centers on June 7, 2010.  This program allows companies to explore certification by first benchmarking their energy performance against comparable companies.  Firms that meet the threshold performance score of 75 out of 100 points can apply to receive data center certification.  After a review by a licensed Professional Engineer and some brief paperwork from the Facility manager, a company can submit an application to Energy Star and hear back in a few short weeks.

Three weeks into the program, one data center has already applied for and received the Energy Star Data Center label. To gain higher levels of participation across the industry, the EPA should consider the following suggestions from the participant perspective:

  • Ratings should consider the climate where the data center is located.  Although the EPA’s initial analysis suggests operational variables have a larger impact on energy performance than climate, anyone who has ever lived in Memphis, Tennessee knows that you must run your air conditioner more than someone living in the cool, dry foothills of Colorado.  The certification should not unfairly penalize companies based on geographic constraints, particularly when tools exist to normalize performance around local factors like temperature and weather.
  • Energy Star should work with local utilities to create rebates and incentives for data centers retrofits all across the country.  For many data centers, the long payback period on an energy-saving retrofit may not overcome traditional “return on investment” standards to allow implemention of the project.  If utilities and Energy Star can work together to make incentives for those investments more widely available, data centers would find it easier to participate in the program.
  • All aspects of data center security is supremely important to firms, and Energy Star’s current requirement that companies disclose the location of their data center facilities deter  organizations from participating.  Due to the sensitive nature of that information, and the fact that data centers aren’t using the certification to pull customers in to visit their particular site, Energy Star should consider removing the address requirement from the data centers.

Still in its infancy and not perfect, the current Energy Star for data centers program has shown a willingness to engage companies.  Continuing this dialogue and designing the program to the unique operating conditions of data centers will go a long way to increasing participation and lowering energy usage across the country.  This program is a great way for companies like FedEx to not only be recognized for their current energy efficiency practices, but also to benchmark against similar companies and strive for even better energy performance.

Note: This blog first appeared on the EDF Innovation Exchange Blog


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