Sustainable data centres: Are they worth the price?

February 25, 2010 4:40 pm

Wind energy is expensive and unreliable – characteristics that make it about the last kind of energy an average data centre operator would consider, at least until an efficient way to store it is found. While better technology to capture and store wind energy is being developed, some companies have found creative ways to maximise the use of wind to run mission critical facilities.

One example is a series of agreements among a Portland, Oregon-based web hosting and colocation service provider, a utility, and a number of third-party wind farm operators – an arrangement that has ensured that there is an amount of wind energy being generated that is equal to the amount of energy used by the data centre.

Canvas Dreams, the colocation provider, runs a data centre, which the company has built and operates itself, located in the Pittock building – Portland’s large carrier hotel. Part of the space houses infrastructure that supports the provider’s hosting business and the rest is offered for colocation.

The 7.2MW facility has a cooling capacity of 1,300 tons. It is backed up by generators that have a cumulative capacity of 8.5MW and can run uninterrupted for 48 hours before refuelling.

While the company does not directly receive wind-generated energy 100% of the time, it pays enough for its utility to buy the amount of such energy necessary to run its data centre around the clock.

Clean Wind

The company participates in Clean Wind, a programme operated by Portland General Electric (PGE) – its utility supplier. Clients that participate in the programme pay about $0.01 more per kWh (the premium fluctuates slightly) than the usual rate to allow PGE to purchase relatively expensive wind power.

As all utilities do, PGE has a diverse generation-fuel portfolio that includes coal, natural gas and hydro. While the utility operates its own large wind farm in Oregon, it also buys the power purchased by Clean Wind participants from other suppliers.

‘When [customers] sign up for renewable energy, we go to the open market,’ said Thor Hinckley, Manager of PGE’s Renewable Power Programme.

Its Biglow Canyon wind farm’s current capacity is 275MW, generated by the first two phases. PGE is currently building phase three, which will bring the farm’s capacity to 450MW.

‘The wind power we own as a utility we supply to all our customers,’ said PGE spokeswoman Elaina Medina.

PGE buys an additional 75MW of wind-generated power from the Klondike Wind Farm in Wasco, Oregon. The 223.6MW farm is owned and operated by the Spanish company Iberdrola Renovables.

The utility buys another 25MW from the Vansycle Ridge Wind Farm near Pendleton, Oregon, and operated by NextEra Energy Resources. NextEra is a subsidiary of Juno Beach, Florida-based FPL Group – owner of Florida Power & Light, a utility that serves customers in the State of Florida.

An alternative to fossil fuels

While the cost of wind-generated energy falls (relative to other sources) as technology improves and more capacity is built, it for sometime will remain expensive compared with fossil fuel.

‘Wind power is the fastest growing generation resource in the [US] and the price has been coming down,’ Hinckley said. But he added: ‘When you look at the cost of fuel like coal, it’s still very difficult for any energy resource to compete with that price.

‘The increasingly lower cost of wind is a benefit but there are still significant issues and those include intermittency and transmission.’

Wind farms in Oregon generate energy 33-35% of the time – a figure called ‘capacity factor’. Because of wind’s intermittent nature, a utility needs other sources to ensure uninterrupted delivery to customers like Canvas Dreams.

Sustainability has been part of Canvas Dreams from the beginning, even though its sustainability programme was formally launched about two years ago. ‘All of us tend to be environmentally oriented and have a sense of personal responsibility,’ says David Anderson, one of the firm’s principals.

Anderson does not claim that the company is completely sustainable, nor does he think the concept can be characterised in such finite terms. ‘We’re certainly not at the ideal place. You keep reviewing, you keep analyzing. That’s a continual process.’

This article first appeared on DatacenterDynamics