Communications Crossroads - Spring 2009

Will Going Green Be Enough?

Will Going Green Be Enough?

No one ever said you’d be able to deliver your triple-play with a hamster in a wheel, but by exploring emerging energy technologies, partnering with utilities and even going grassroots in the workplace, telcos can benefit themselves—and the environment—without compromising customer service.

Going green still is undeniably hot, though for less altruistic reasons than generally occur during a time of economic boom. As the world begins a slow rebound from a down economy and hopes rise with a new administration in the White House, new ideas about how to run telecommunications—from the front office to the head-end and in between—are moving front and center. And leaders in this industry, alongside many others, are finding that the Wall Street bulls appreciate green just as much as the polar bears do.

Nerdy reference ahead: Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, known affectionately as ‘Scotty’ by his shipmates aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, was perpetually plagued by pleas for “More power!” It’s a concept grasped easily by professionals in the business of telecommunications, data storage and other power-hungry industries for which the demand for seamless energy sources seems insatiable. This, not surprisingly, is traditionally where the selflessness of the green movement tends to clash with the (let’s just call it) pragmatism of the corporate world.

“Power has gotten more expensive—on average—in pretty much every region across the country,” says Miles Kelly. Kelly is vice president, marketing and strategy, for 365 Main, Inc., a San Francisco-based company that develops and operates high-tech data centers—five in all, with a sixth on the way in Newark, Calif., a site which will be the first Bay Area data center seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. “And power rates continue to creep up, usually at inflation rates if not a little higher, each year.

As companies have doubled-down on technology and are using more servers, they have recognized that their power bills are significant. “Energy efficiency,” says Kelly, “is one element of the over-arching green umbrella and the real weight behind energy efficiency is that if you reduce the amount of power you use, you reduce the cost of running your business, your network, your data center.”

Cut Carbon. Cut Cost. Cut Service?

Data storage, much like telecommunications services, is a product absolutely anchored in dependable service.“Running a data center is about two things: delivering reliable power to people and removing heat,” says Chad Kissinger, president of OnRamp Access, Inc., an Austin, Texas-based facility. Most of the power needed to run a data center is consumed by its servers; however a substantial segment is devoured amid the perpetual hum of the obligatory air conditioners that cool them. “The figure that has been bandied about in the industry is that for every amp you send to a computer,” Kissinger says, “you send about .6 or .7 amps to an associated cooling system.”

With that understood, Kissinger and his colleagues decided that the easiest way to go green was to make sure that all their electricity came from green sources via their utility—Austin Energy. “They have a very good program called GreenChoice®. They came to us several years ago with an offer—essentially if we’d agree to sign up to use 100 percent green energy, our fuel charge would remain steady for the next 10 years.”

At that time, the charge was slightly higher than the going rate. “In the interim, other fuel costs have gone up and now we actually are paying less than what we’d be paying had we not signed on. It’s turned out to be a good deal, cheaper in the long-term.”

While the utility culls its power from multiple sources, not all of them are renewable. The green electrons are not necessarily the ones powering the servers at OnRamp. “They don’t pull special wires for me,” chuckles Kissinger. “I get the same electricity I’ve always gotten, but what they do is when we buy a certain number of kilowatts from them, they buy a certain amount of green-generated energy—wind-generated from West Texas.”

Essentially, OnRamp is helping to fund it. With their guarantee to buy the electricity, the utility can contract at a set price. “The cost of wind doesn’t go up once you invest in a plant. Demand may drive it up, but it’s not a resource problem.

“There doesn’t seem to be a green technology that we can use that is reliable enough and predictable enough to replace [the diesel fuel for the generator],” he admits. “There’s nothing comparable yet, that I am aware of, that could do the same job.”

He keeps an eye out for companies with new technologies in the works, including one in Austin that has come up with a fly-wheel technology that can cover the 13-15 seconds needed in the space before a diesel generator kicks on in the event of an emergency. “The problem is that it only provides about 60 seconds of power,” he says. “If that generator doesn’t start, I want to have time to go out there and kick it!” he jokes. “With [our current] UPS system, I have 15 minutes to panic and then go out and do something.”

‘Reducing the carbon footprint,’—while not as catchy and adaptable as the shorter, cuter ‘green’—is becoming nearly as overused. But the real question is: Does simply reducing your company’s carbon footprint make it ‘green enough’ in the present, er—climate?

“That is a really good question,” Kelly admits. He believes that to a certain degree it depends on who’s running the show. “There are a lot of people who put a high intrinsic value on carbon reduction,” he says, “but much of that is emotional.”

Not to exhaust the Star Trek analogies, but few things turn a soft, eco-conscious CIO’s heart cold, logical and Vulcan like a weak bottom line.

The question of ‘reduction versus reliability’ is something that Kelly’s company put to the test in their newest data center, creating a plan to have the center’s primary source of energy come not from the local utility but from an on-site cogeneration plant that would run off of 100 percent natural gas. “One of the benefits of this,” he says, “would be a carbon footprint roughly 21 percent smaller than if we were to run it off of the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) grid.” A significant reduction.

“In numbers of tons,” Kelly believes, “it was something like 21,000 tons per year.” And to green up the icing on this energy-efficient cake, the proposed plan banished the diesel generator as back-up— handing that responsibility to the utility instead. “Most CIOs,” he admits, “and frankly most customers, can’t think of a utility as an ideal back-up even though statistically it is quite reliable.” So 365Main took their pitch to the people; several chief investment officers of potential clients: Twenty-one percent less carbon at precisely the same cost as if they were running off of PG&E’s grid. “We were actually going to eat some of those initial start-up costs in order to make their cost the same.”

Every single one said no.

“At the end of the day,” explains Kelly, “the game is all about reliability and up-time. And when you run a co-generation plant as primary, the actual engines that create the energy are only 94 percent reliable.” What this means is that 20 days each year, each one of these engines must be taken off-line and serviced. “And you could still design around that,” he says. “We talked about having nine engines although we only needed five—so we could rotate and that would always allow for a couple of them to be available…. But despite the attraction of the huge reduction in carbon emissions, even at the same cost, the CIOs still said no.”

The story, he says, points to the fact that even when given the chance to be leaders in their respective industries by being able to say, ‘We’ve got the first truly clean data center,’ they balked. “What that said to me,” Kelly recalls, “is that [being green] will remain in the ‘nice-to-have’ category, particularly in our industry. Anytime you screw with reliability, it doesn’t matter how green it is. They’re still going to stick with the ‘dirtier’ option.”

Solar Flowers

The idea, even the practice, of harnessing the sun’s power has been around for a relative eon in technological terms, but science is finding new and increasingly efficient methods of doing it, ways that are benefiting telecommunications companies in a place they particularly enjoy seeing improvements: the utility bill.

The enormous flat-panels we’ve grown accustomed to now are early dinosaurs, likely plodding on toward extinction in favor of a more-evolved technology. Taking their place, perhaps, is a relatively new kid on the block: the Miniature Concentrating Photovoltaic (MCPV) unit. Photovoltaics convert sunlight into electricity using semiconductor materials.

When Israel-based Telco Systems’ CEO Zvi Marom was looking for a green way to slash power costs, this new technology—ideal for Telco’s sun-rich location—seemed like a more-than-viable option. “I managed to lower my expenses 10 percent despite the hike in energy prices,” Marom reports. “And I predict that this year it will go down again somewhere between 20 and 25 percent.”

And when your company’s annual power expenditures total in the ballpark of $750,000, those are some significant numbers.

Distributed Solar Power (DiSP), the company behind Telco’s new solar farm (a neat, compact arrangement of units on the facility’s rooftop), captures solar heat at elevated temperatures. The overall efficiency of converting solar power to useful energy for the customer is up to 75 percent.

One of the most exciting features of the system is that it can generate both electrical power and thermal energy—the latter of which can be used in heat exchanges for air conditioning. An analysis of the large-scale MCPV manufacturing expenses shows that the standard cost for electricity falls between $1.5 and $1.75 per watt. Factor in the value of the thermal energy and it drops to roughly $0.9 per watt according to DiSP. In areas with good solar conditions—DiSP includes the southwestern United States specifically in this tally—the cost of energy from an MCPV system can be as much as 79 percent lower than utility prices. Telco is working with DiSP to commercialize this technology, particularly for power server farms.

“Although the cost of energy has gone down,” says Marom, “there is no doubt that when the recession does end the prices will climb again. This is unavoidable. So lowering your energy consumption is a substantial part of how you lower your costs.” Marom says he is not necessarily an advocate for eradicating other forms of energy outright. “The main problem in energy consumption is actually balancing it and using the grid in a kind of calculated average. If you do that, you will lower your expenses significantly.” And he is quick to add that the change in energy sourcing has not affected his company’s service one bit.

In places like Israel, solar power makes a lot of sense. “For heating, in the past 20 years it has been mandatory to install a solar system when you are building a home or buying a condominium,” he says. “It is very reliable,” he laughs. “I don’t remember the last time I could not take a shower because the sun didn’t rise in the morning. In fact, you can probably be certain that the sun will continue to rise even after all the telecoms are gone.”