Solar Power Your Data Center Into the Future

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Nov 6, 2009


Have you noticed that a whole lot of solar is suddenly going on with regard to the data center? For example, the famous Googleplex has a 1.6 MW solar array, Intel has installed a 100 kW array in its Oregon campus as well as a 10 kW plant at a New Mexico manufacturing plant, and a company known as i/o Data Centers is erecting a 4.5 MW collection of photovoltaic (PV) panels on its roof in Phoenix.

Hard-Core Hardware: The age of solar power is fast arriving, and it may be keeping the lights on in a data center near you. The former downsides, chiefly cost constraints, no longer apply.

I've personally come across a couple of data centers in recent months that had installed or were about to install solar. The most impressive is the Emerson data center in St. Louis with its blue rooftop panels (provided by SunTec Power) designed to look like the front sail of a large yacht. It provides 100 kW DC to the IT load, about 13.6 percent of its electrical needs. Why not go whole hog? John Berendzen, the project's architect who works for Fox Architects said it would have required solar cells covering the rustic campus to power the entire data center. The array has a 10 percent tilt based on energy capture, wind concerns and snow shedding factors.

How about the economics? Keith Gislason, an IT Strategic Planner at Emerson estimates a 20-year payback based on relatively low electricity rates in Missouri. The payback would be more rapid in a state such as California or New Jersey where electricity rates are much higher and where tax breaks for renewable energy are more abundant.

The current administration has included 19 solar provisions within the stimulus package, so you can expect discounts, rebates and tax breaks to be available in your area. If they're not here, they're coming soon.

In California, homeowners get a 20 percent rebate on costs, plus a 30 percent federal tax credit. According to www.getsolar.com, federal grants are available now for any commercial solar installations. That amounts to a cash grant of 30 percent of the total installed costs. State programs may add to that even more discounts. Another site will give you an estimate of the cost of solar on your building.

New Jersey, Arizona and Nevada are examples of other states offering various incentives. In some areas of the country, however, local government approvals and utility interconnects can prove to be major hurdles. Time Warner Cable (TWC), for example, has been running into red tape trying to install solar panels on the roof of a New York City facility.

Breeding Like Prius'

The likelihood is that someone on your street or a business in your industrial park will install solar in the next few months. Expect PV arrays to breed like Prius' thereafter. Case in point: The attendance at the Solar Power International show last month almost doubled from the year before to more than 24,000 attendees and almost 1,000 exhibitors. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis were among the keynote speakers. Why not the President? He was attending the commissioning of a utility-scale solar PV plant in Florida during the conference.

Watch out for solar incentives in your area, therefore. And the next time the data center needs a new roof, or you are establishing a new data center, spec it out to include solar. It will at the very least pay for itself over the course of its life, and more than likely it will turn a profit rapidly once energy bills head northward once again.

Be aware, too, that the vast Chinese government investment in the industry has resulted in a glutted market. That country aims to totally dominate global solar so prices have plummeted as Chinese companies offer solar panels at low rates. The American industry is lowering its prices to compete. Right now is a good time to be thinking solar!

"Overall, we found that solar's installed costs are a lot less than advertised," said Gislason of Emerson.

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he was originally from Scotland where he received a degree in Geology/Geography from the University of Strathcyle. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

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