Escalating The Data Center To LEED Platinum
While General Electric may be taking some heat for its ability to dodge paying federal taxes and its deep love of locating jobs anywhere else in the world but on U.S. shores, the company would appear to have done at least one thing right this year: it has just announced that a new data center it has built has been granted LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Platinum status, making the multinational company one of the few owners in the world of a Platinum-rated data center. The center will support the information needs of about 27,000 employees in 100 countries who work for GE’s Lighting & Lighting division, and will offer about four times more capacity than the facility it’s replacing.
LEED, of course, is an international sustainable building framework maintained by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It outlines minimum requirements of both the construction and maintenance of a building, with an eye toward sustainability goals. There are LEED standards for new constructions, existing building refurbishment, commercial interiors, core and shell, schools, retail and homes. There are also plans for future LEED codes for both neighborhood development and health care facilities. (And there has been talk of a future dedicated LEED rating for data centers.) Buildings may earn four LEED levels: certified, silver, gold and platinum, with platinum being the most rigorous: only six percent of LEED certified buildings in the world have attained Platinum status.
The building GE chose for the facility is a converted factory in Louisville, Kentucky. To keep to the sky-high LEED platinum
standards and requirements, builders maintained 98.3 percent of the original skeleton: walls, floors and roof. Rather than shipping building materials in from all corners of the world, GE reportedly sourced just over half of the project’s construction materials locally, and over 30 percent of the building’s materials were recycled. Builders were also able to keep more than 85 percent of construction waste out of landfills by recycling it.
“GE is joining an elite group of LEED-Platinum data centers around the world,” said Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO and founding chair of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).
“Given the amount of energy data centers consume, achieving LEED Platinum will help GE reduce its environmental footprint, while moving the industry forward in its effort to reduce the global environmental impact of IT operations,” said Fedrizzi.
While LEED Platinum data centers are still rare, they’re becoming a bit more common. Also this month, Vantage Data Centers announced that one of its new facilities in Santa Clara, California has been awarded the LEED Platinum certification, as well. (The other two data centers on the site have not yet been evaluated, but Vantage says it expects they too will receive Platinum status. If that happens, Vantage will be the proud owners of the largest campus of LEED Platinum data centers in the world.)
Vantage is claiming some even more impressive numbers than GE, saying that it was able to divert more than 91 percent of construction wastes away from landfills and use over 40 percent recycled content in the construction of the building.
The very first Platinum-rated data center in the world was opened in 2009 in Frankfurt, Germany for Citigroup. While it follows all sourcing and recycling requirements for building materials and construction waste, it’s also quite literally green: one entire wall of the building and the roof are covered with a panel of green turf to help insulate the building naturally. The facility, known as Citi Data Center, uses about 30 percent of the energy that would be required by a data facility of the same capacity constructed to traditional buildings standards.
Beyond the new GE and Advantage Platinum data centers and the Citi Data Center in Germany, there are six others: two operated by Digital Realty Trust in Silicon valley, one belonging to Nvidia, also in the Silicon Valley, VMware’s data center in Washington state, one operated by American College Testing in Iowa (the first LEED Platinum data center in the U.S., opened in 2009) and one belonging to HCL Infosystems in India.
So What Makes a LEED Platinum Data Center?
Aside from local sourcing of materials and recycling construction waste, what makes for a Platinum data center?
In the case of Advantage, the Web site DataCenterDynamics says:
- Lighting that is 40 percent more efficient than state energy code requirements (California’s Title 24 Energy Code), including advanced controls for maximum power savings;
- Energy-efficient HVAC design;
- Cooling from natural, outside air 80 percent of the year;
- Full use of Energy Star-rated equipment and appliances inside the building;
- Ninety-one percent of construction waste diverted from landfill;
- Forty percent of construction materials from recycled sources;
- Preferred parking for carpools and hybrid cars; and
- Landscaping with native species that require no irrigation.
GE earned its Platinum props because of:
- Fifty percent of construction materials purchased from local sources;
- Thirty percent of construction materials from recycled sources;
- Eighty-five percent of construction waste diverted from landfill;
- Thirty-four percent better efficiency rating than typical code-compliant data centers;
- High-efficiency cooling systems;
- High-density servers (more data fitting on fewer servers, requiring smaller floor space);
- A 42 percent reduction in typical baseline water consumption; and
- A 35 percent reduction in energy consumption due to the purchase of off-site renewable energy.
The high-density servers are a key element for the greenest and cleanest data centers. Since they hold more data in smaller spaces, more computing power can be confined to a smaller building. And given the intensive needs that data centers have for cooling equipment, a smaller space means lower need for energy-intensive air conditioning.
“It’s hard for data centers to achieve LEED certification,” said Anita Baldock, GE’s data center project lead. “If you’re making a facility to house thousands of computers, obviously you’re going to have a huge power draw.”
Make those computers half the size – or smaller – than they were just 10 years ago, and you can cut down on the building size and the energy demands of the new data center significantly.
What’s the PUE?
LEED Platinum or not, when it comes to testing how green a data center is, it’s all about “PUE,” or power usage effectiveness. Basically, it’s a way to determine how much of the power a data center draws is actually used by the computers for computing rather than peripheral systems such as cooling or lighting.
Vantage says its LEED Platinum data center has a PUE of 1.29, measured during commissioning, which is excellent (one is a perfect and unattainable rating that would mean that a facility draws 100 percent of its power for computing purposes and has no other power needs; the average data center has a PUE of 2.5, according to data center analyst group Uptime Institute. For a six MW, 60,000 square foot facility, such as Vantage’s first data center, this PUE of 1.29 translates to about $3 million per year saved in operating expenses, easily offsetting the escalated costs for building a facility to such high LEED standards. GE is boasting a slightly less efficient – but still excellent – PUE of 1.63.
Why Are Green Data Centers So Important?
For starters, data centers are estimated to have consumed two percent of the electricity used in the U.S. last year. While two percent may sound low, that’s a lot of electricity, and that figure is only expected to rise as more and more data centers are built.
Research group McKinsey & Company has estimated that carbon dioxide emissions from data centers alone will quadruple by the year 2020. If and when this happens, the computing industry will be responsible for more carbon emissions than the airline industry.
As more business travelers choose to use video conferencing, Webinars and the like to communicate with co-workers, partners and clients, all the while touting environmental responsibility in cutting down their business-related airline travel, it will become rather ironic if the amount of server use their virtual activities consume surpass the air travel they otherwise would have engaged in in terms of carbon output.
So Why Are There Only 10 On The Planet?
So if the savings reaped by a Platinum data center are so steep across the facility’s lifetime, why are there only 10 of them in the world?
For starters, the upfront costs are breathtakingly steep – GE’s Platinum data center cost about $48 million to build – even if the savings are ultimately recouped by the efficient operations. And consider that GE used a great deal of its own “Eco-Imagination” technology in the construction of the data center: smart grid technologies and battery back-up systems, for starters. Without those, the costs presumably would have been even higher. Secondly, many data storage companies say that their clients just aren’t that interested in how efficiently their computing operations are.
Says DataCenterDynamics, “Those that do go for maximum energy efficiency despite the cost are motivated largely by two things: good publicity and the operational savings.”
There might be signs that this is changing, however. In an interview with GreenBiz, Vantage’s vice president Patrick Davis said that his company is now in a “sweet spot” when customers start specifying a data center’s LEED certification in its requests for proposals (RFPs), and Davis said that this requirement is showing up in RFPs with increasing frequency.
As alternative energy technologies advance even further and become feasible for companies running large data centers, the target of a LEED Platinum data center may be easier to hit. Technology company NTT America, for example, recently purchased five Bloom Energy fuel cells for its data center located in San Jose, California. The so-called “Bloom Boxes” use oxygen pulled from the air and fuel from biogas (in NTT’s case, the biogas will be sourced from several landfills in Pennsylvania) to generate a total of about 500 kilowatts of electricity: enough to run about 500 houses or five large office buildings.
While the “Bloom Boxes” are pricey (about a quarter of a million each), Bloom has been steadily expanding its customer list of data centers (both in-house and outsourced data center service providers) as companies look to cut down on energy costs in the long run and generate some positive publicity. And in the case of California-based Bloom customers such as NTT,
Google, eBay, AT&T and Adobe, says GigaOm, the state of California helps subsidize the costs of the Bloom Boxes.
Of course, the Bloom Boxes can only be supplemental energy: while most data centers promise their clients efficiency and up-time to what’s called “five nines” standards (99.999 percent up-time), the Bloom Boxes are only 98 percent efficient. Still, when powered by energy from renewable and clean sources – such as biogas – the fuel cells take away some of the need for the data centers to buy energy from traditional, “dirty” sources such as fossil-fuel burning utility companies.
And while the need for data centers expands – think of all the personal material such as photos, documents and social networking interactions that are stored not on your home PC but “in the cloud,” or in data centers – along with their emissions, companies operating under sustainability pledges or green programs will begin to look to their data centers, or the companies they engage to outsource their IT operations and data storage needs to, as expanded means of shrinking their environmental “footprints.”
Not to mention, drum up some positive press. And right now, Google, AT&T and GE could all use a little of that.