For many traditional IT companies, the lure of energy efficiency efforts is two-fold: data center costs are becoming dominated by power use, so greater efficiency will both save them money and provide them with products and services that they can sell to other companies. These efforts also fall nicely in line with the goals of the Department of Energy, which is now using some of its stimulus money to fund data center efficiency projects from companies like Alcatel-Lucent, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Yahoo. Meanwhile, Google has decided it needs greater control over the power coming in, and will be launching its own utility, which will focus on supplying it with renewable energy.
The new DOE grants were announced on Wednesday. “By reducing energy use and energy costs for the IT and telecommunications industries, this funding will help create jobs and ensure the sector remains competitive,” stated DOE head Steven Chu. “The expected growth of these industries means that new technologies adopted today will yield benefits for many years to come.” The total funding was relatively small, at $47 million, but (like many DOE-funded efforts), it will require matching money from the industry involved, which will bring the total expenditures up to over $100 million.
The funding(PDF) will cover the full data center ecosystem, from facility cooling to software that helps cut the drain of idle hardware. Some of them have gone to traditional enterprise research centers. For example, IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center has received two awards, one for developing facility-scale liquid cooling, the other for monitoring and controlling cooling systems. Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs will get two as well, for developing methods to monitor network-wide traffic flows in order to optimize power use, and another for liquid cooling systems, as well.
Hewlett-Packard’s award will go towards the development of an integrated, modular server unit that integrates the cooling and power conversion hardware into the unit. Yahoo will get one to help it build one of its passive-cooling data centers, which itdescribed in detail in the past.
But some of the more interesting projects are going to smaller companies and the academic world. Santa Clara’s SeaMicro will be testing physicalized servers with hundreds of processors that may see a 75 percent energy saving. Caltech will get money to develop software for load balancing across multiple data centers. Columbia University will be getting an award to develop technology for making better use of power once it’s on the CPU; the plan is to make better use of the power the CPU receives, cutting losses by 10 percent.
Google wasn’t on the DOE’s award list, but the company has done extensive work to optimize the power use of its data centers and obtain renewable energy for its facilities. But the company has gone significantly beyond that, funding a variety of renewable energy technology companies via its Google.org initiative. Apparently, however, the company wants a bit more control over the power it uses, as the company has launched a subsidiary called Google Energy and applied to trade energy on the wholesale market. Essentially, the company is dissatisfied with the renewable offerings being made by its utilities, and wants to make sure it has more options available to it.
Presumably, the move will ultimately allow it to buy power from some of the renewable companies that it’s funding via Google.org.
Right now, it’s clear that these enterprise companies see lots of opportunity in the renewable and energy efficiency markets, and are scrambling to take advantage of them (creating some strange bedfellows in the process, like the Yahoo-DOE arrangement). But an interview with Bill Weihl, the Google executive who runs their green energy initiatives, highlights a danger of the current environment: it’s highly dependent on the stimulus money. “At the end of 2010, when the stimulus ends, we’re going to drive off the biggest funding cliff the energy field has ever seen,” Weihl said. The key question will be whether these companies have made an irreversible commitment to efficiency before we drop off that cliff.