The debate over the environmental impact of data centers provides an easy target for political lobbyists pushing for greater regulation of energy: big companies like Facebook and Apple. Yet just try to take away these folk’s iPhones and Facebook games. The energy conundrum is, or would appear to be, the central political issue of our time.
The answer, to many, is solar power. Clean, silent, low-maintenance, and largely emissions-free. But science tells us today that solar farms aren’t efficient. Based on their figures, I decided to extrapolate a few solar farm scenarios based on the parameters of the new solar-powered data centers built by Facebook in Oregon and Apple in N. Carolina.
Facebook’s data center is a 100-megawatt giant, and its solar array, which spans acres and acres in the Oregon outback, puts out a just 0.05 megawatts at a typical energy conversion efficiency of about 14%. Apple’s planned N.C. solar farm will fill 180 acres of land and will put out 3.5 megawatts at typical efficiency (Apple will drive a 70 megawatt load on a slow day at their N.C. data center). Using those ratios, and keeping in mind that these are the best, most efficient solar generators on the planet, we could estimate that:
* A typical .3 kw household would require 0.154 acre of this top-of-the-line solar technology. That would fill a typical suburban lot, and leave no room for the house.
* A typical 3.5 acre city block, containing 16 households, would require 2.5 acres of solar array, or two and a half football fields.
* New York City, some 325 square miles in size, if it were filled only with these houses, would require a solar array the size of Chicago, which weighs in at about 250 square miles.
* The USA would require about three states the size of Texas filled only with solar farms and nothing else to fulfill its electricity needs. The distribution system for this electricity (power lines, AC turbines, etc.) would require a further two states the size of Colorado.
* Mass-market electrical consumption cannot be serviced by solar generation without regulated rationing.
* The current industry focus on solar energy has much more to do with applied research as it does with near-term ROI.
* Data centers should concentrate, if they want to save money, or if they believe fossil and nuclear power generation are harmful, on reducing their consumption.
Best Technology’s Managed Technology Plan allows data center managers to better understand their power consumption and make informed decisions to affect change in the power requirements of their hardware and software systems.