Silicon trip: Search engines seeking a renewable revolution

The IT industry is now wide awake to the world- changing potential of renewable energy. Elisa Wood investigates how several of the biggest names are working on greening energy usage for both themselves and their customers. Among the lead proponents of this new philosophy are Google and IBM.

The whirr of energy-hungry computers is a prime reason that demand for power is soaring in the US. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, data centres housing servers for internet connections doubled their energy use in the last five years, and are expected to double it again in the next five.

Yet the IT industry – not just in the US but worldwide – is only now beginning to take a hard look at ways to make its power usage both more efficient and low carbon. In fact, the concept is so new to this otherwise savvy sector that large numbers of silicon industry executives are hard pressed to even define ‘green.’ According to a survey of roughly 800 managers conducted in 14 countries by Symantec, best known for its virus protection software Norton, 31% of data centre managers are either unfamiliar with the idea of a green data management centre or have never heard of it at all. Some managers surveyed thought it had something to do with recycling paper, others flat out said they couldn’t define ‘green’ or admitted it seldom entered their day-to-day thinking.

‘Internationally, there is much confusion as to what exactly a green data centre is. Few organizations currently have green data centres.And only one in seven data centre managers say they either have implemented or have begun to implement a green data centre,’ said the Symantec 2007 Green Data Center Report, published in November 2007.

This is especially surprising considering just how much energy such facilities use. The EPA estimates the sector consumed 61 TWh in 2006, about 1.5% of total US electricity use, at a cost of some US$4.5 billion. This is more electricity than the nation uses to watch television. Moreover, industry insiders say the EPA statistics are probably low because it is difficult to identify all of the data centres in the US – and those that are known tend to guard against making information public about their energy usage out of concern it will reveal too much to their competitors.

‘In California, the estimate is that about 4% to 5% of total energy use is in data centres,’ says Steven Sams,Vice President of Global Site and Facilities Services for IBM. He adds: ‘I do believe the utilities themselves think that the number might be grossly underestimated,’ saying:’Nobody actually tracks this.’

For example, representatives of a California utility recently told Sams that they had no idea a neighbouring building was a data centre until one day when utility employees looked out to see a stack of servers and storage technology sitting on the building’s loading dock.


The information technology world has been slow to green-up, but now that appears to be changing, with about half of the managers surveyed in the Symantec study saying they were discussing, planning, or already implementing a green data centre. This is even with so much confusion globally about what a green data centre actually is. Several significant events marked a turn-around in 2007.

* Many computer-related companies took action to use more renewable energy over the course of the year. Google installed 1.6 MW of Sharp solar panels at its corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California. Meanwhile, Hewlett Packard (HP) signed an agreement with SunPower for a 1 MW solar installation at its San Diego facility, and offered HP employees rebates of up to $4000 to install panels on their own homes. Dell even publicly committed to neutralize its carbon impact worldwide, in part through increased use of green energy. * For the first time, a ‘Green500’ list of most energy-efficient supercomputers was published. Launched by two college professors at Virginia Tech, the project aims to shift the industry’s focus away from solely measuring computer worth based on speed – which tends to increase power consumption. In addition, several major information technology companies formed a consortium known as the ‘Green Grid’ aimed at making data centres more energy efficient.

* The Global e-Sustainability Initiative, which includes such companies as HP, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems, launched a study into the carbon emissions caused by computers, telecommunications and other information technology.The group hopes to avert a predicted doubling of greenhouse gases from the sector by 2020.

Also, the National Governors Association formed a partnership with Climate Savers Computing Initiative, a non-profit venture founded by Google and Intel. The Governors aim to reduce greenhouse gases through more efficiency in government use of computers. However, the most significant event of the year was the blockbuster announcement by internet search engine company Google that it plans to use its entrepreneurial knowhow to tackle one of the thorniest issues for the US renewable energy sector: how to make renewable energy cheaper than even the cheapest and most abundant fossil fuel – old king coal.

‘We have gained great experience in designing large-scale data systems, making them efficient and to scale,’ said Larry Page, who co-founded Google in 1998 with Sergey Brin.’We’re excited about using that knowledge and creativity in the energy area. Just providing energy for Google is not enough of a goal; we want to provide [renewable] energy that is cheap enough that it can replace a significant amount of energy used today,’ he added.


Google’s mission is to generate 1 GW of renewable energy that is cheaper than coal-fired generation.The company intends to reach this goal, enough to power a city the size of San Francisco, within ‘years not decades,’ Page said during a media briefing.This is no small task, given that coal-fired generation costs as little as 1 to 3 cents/kWh and accounted for 49.03% of total US electricity in 2006, significantly higher than the average global use of 30%. But then, Google is no small company, being responsible for 60% of all internet searches in 2007. Its assets totalled more than $23 billion as of third quarter 2007 and annual revenue was more than $11.7 billion – growth that was achieved in less than a decade. Google’s new venture is called RE<C, (renewable energy less than coal), a name that even Page admits is a ‘a little bit geeky.’ Initially, RE<C will focus on three research and development areas where it sees strong, near-term potential for price reduction: solar thermal, high altitude wind and advanced geothermal.’Grabbing at low hanging fruit, like offsets, is not adequate to deal with climate change.We need to tackle bigger problems of electricity generation,’ Brin said.

Sometimes criticized for his use of a private jet, Brin says he personally wrestles with what it means to be green and how to incorporate it into daily life.’It is unrealistic to think everyone will stop travelling all of a sudden or stop using electricity,’ he said, adding:’Technology is what I think is really the answer.’ Hybrid cars, for example, point the way to what a green future might look like, where products not only reduce carbon emissions but provide more consumer convenience. Brin bought a Prius because it is an ‘efficient car and a relatively green car. It is also a good car – if you ever parallel park in San Francisco on a steep hill, it is nice to have electric power.We have the opportunity to improve the quality of human life and solve climate change at the same time.The Prius is one small example,’ he says.

Brin has also said he does not want to see renewable energy fall victim to the risks of trendiness.’Sometimes these sort of things backfire if it appears as a fad. But climate change is not like bell bottoms.The effects are going to last hundreds of years.’

To make sure today’s support of renewable energy does not go the way of bell bottoms, Google has taken some immediate, concrete steps toward boosting what it sees as promising, new technologies. The company has, for instance, formed partnerships with two start-up companies: eSolar Inc., of Pasadena, California and Makani Power of Alameda, California.

eSolar designs concentrated solar power systems that use mirrors 100 to 300 times smaller than conventional models. Its systems consist of several thermal receiver towers, each with a field of heliostat mirrors, and a central power block with turbine and generator.The company says it keeps cost down for its 25 MW modules through a design that takes advantage of mass manufactured components.The modules are replicated and combined to create utility-scale concentrated solar plants that are up to 500 MW in capacity.The repetition of modules provides redundancy in the system, so that if one module goes off line, power continues to be generated by the other modules in the plant. The design also boasts small, wind-tolerant heliostats capable of withstanding difficult weather conditions. The start-up project is by Idealab, which also nurtured Stirling Cycles that produces electricity with device based on a Stirling external combustion engine. Stirling Cycles was recently purchased by Infinia and the new owners plan to use the technology, which exploits a heat differential to drive a piston, in an application within solar power systems.

Meanwhile, Makani Power is developing wind power systems that bypass the traditional wind turbine and instead capture wind with a kind of kite, launched into high altitudes. The company, a project of Squid Labs, says it is pursuing high altitude wind because it has the largest energy density per square foot of any resource.The company was founded in 2006 by Saul Griffith and Don Montague. Griffith is an inventor who holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is co-author of several children’s comic books. Montague is a professional wind surfer and sporting goods designer. Also part of the team is Pete Lynn, a New Zealand kite designer, mechanical engineer and early advocate of high altitude wind energy.

On the geothermal side, Google has yet to announce specific investments, but says it was attracted to the technology because of a paper published in 2006 by an 18member panel of MIT scientists. Titled ‘The Future of Geothermal Energy,’ the report says that enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) could provide the US with 100 GW in the next 50 years. EGS uses advanced heat mining technology to unearth geothermal potential not made readily available by nature. Contrary to popular opinion, there are no insurmountable technical problems to make EGS commercially viable, the report concludes.

According to the MIT panel, EGS offers some advantages over conventional fuels, and even over other renewables. It is one of the few renewable energy resources that can provide base-load power, it has little visual impact, and it produces very low, if any, emissions. Furthermore, the potential extractable quantities of EGS are vast, amounting to about 2000 times the current annual energy consumption of the US. However, a great deal more research and development is necessary to make the resource cost competitive, with the report recommending a $300-$400 million government investment over 15 years to develop early-generation EGS power plants.

Nonetheless, aside from its announcement of the two partnerships, Google has offered scant details about its cheaper-than-coal mission, except to say that it plans to build upon extensive work already done by others in the renewable energy world.The company plans to hire 20 to 30 people over the next year to assist with the effort, partner with companies in the US and Europe, invest in start-ups, possibly acquire renewable energy companies, and become a significant buyer of green power. Given the large energy consumption at its data centres, Google will be in a position,’to invest in fairly good size chunks of this power and take more risks than other energy users would be willing to take,’ said Brin.

Indeed, Google is not a novice to the sector. In addition to installing 9212 solar panels at its California headquarters, it has several other green initiatives underway.The company plans to install a solar hot water heating system at its office in Hyderabad, India and, to further reduce its carbon footprint, the company has invested in carbon reduction strategies throughout its global operations. This includes, for instance, better animal waste management systems at livestock operations in Mexico and Brazil.


Like many other large energy users, Google has undertaken many conventional efficiency projects, such as installing energy efficient equipment and replacing tungsten filament light bulbs with low energy versions. In addition, the company is employing some less common carbon reduction methods, such as the use of ‘shadow’ carbon pricing, used in Europe but still rare in the US. In this case, when Google buys power for its data centres the company factors in the theoretical cost of carbon emitted by the electricity generation sources. Coal-fired generation, for example, is cheap in terms of cents/kWh, but the price rises significantly when the cost of carbon emissions from coal are considered. Conversely, the relative price of renewable energy drops. Google weighs power costs, including the additional carbon shadow pricing, in its consideration for siting new data centres.

‘It is very hard for us to find places to locate that are not coal-based.We don’t feel good about that situation.We want to make the investments so that there will be alternatives for us to use down the road,’ Brin said.

In addition, Google has launched a ‘RechartIT’ initiative to convert its fleet of hybrid cars into plug-ins, test their performance under various conditions and provide the results to the general public. Google charges the cars in two solar carports at its California headquarters. As part of the effort, Google has partnered with California utility PG&E to evaluate vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology. The project aims to show how the grid not only feeds power to plug-in cars, but also how the cars can supply power to the grid when required.To speed up commercialization of plug-in vehicles, the company also is offering grants of $500,000 to $2 million to promising for- profit companies working on the technology.

Finally, Google has initiated several online programmes aimed at helping its customers go green. These include an online calendar of environmental events, a map function that provides information on mass transit for a given trip, and a personalized carbon calculator that allows individuals to monitor their carbon footprint.


Google expects ‘near-term profits’ from RE<C, says Page, while Brin argues that RE>C is not ‘just about solving a problem – it creates a gigantic opportunity.’ But the effort is as much an act of corporate responsibility, as it is strategic investment.’It is a good business decision to create low-cost alternatives to coal, but there is an even greater social benefit,’ said Larry Brilliant, executive director of, the company’s philanthropic arm. Brilliant says that climate change is making it harder for developing countries to overcome problems of poverty and insufficient health care. So RE<C is a ‘good example of how the business side of Google and philanthropy can work together,’ he said, adding:’We don’t want our core business to be part to the problem; we want it to be part of the solution.’

That philosophy echoes an approach pushed for many years by another information technology giant, IBM. More than 35 years ago IBM took the then unusual step of developing a corporate environmental policy.As early as 1990, the company began monitoring and publishing information about its carbon emissions. More recently, IBM – known as the Big Blue – launched ‘Big Green,’ a $1 billion initiative to help improve the environmental performance of data centres worldwide. ‘We think being environmentally conscious is pretty sound business,’ IBM’s Sams says.

Indeed, while Google is focusing on bringing down the cost of renewable energy, IBM is looking at specific ways to make its own and its clients’ data centres less reliant on polluting sources of power. The average data centre occupies some 25,000 ft2 and spends about $2.6 million per year on energy at 10 cents/kWh. IBM would like to see this consumption reduced by half.

Like Google, IBM uses many conventional renewable energy approaches – such as purchasing of wind power – while at the same time pursuing novel techniques to conserve energy. For example, at its Burlington, Vermont, facility, the company is recycling semi-conductor wafers for use in solar panels and is pioneering methods in ‘intelligent’ building design for data centres with the help of 850 energy efficiency architects worldwide. Cooling systems play an especially important role in data centres because computer equipment is very heat intensive. In fact, only 30% to 40% of the power used in a data centre goes on operating the technology, Sams says, with much of the remainder used for cooling. IBM uses heat exchangers that use ambient air and water to cool data centres, helping to avoid use of electrically run air conditioners. Moreover, the company is testing an innovative cold battery storage system which uses a coolant that, IBM says, is four or five times more efficient than water.The battery is now being tested by four companies and is expected to be available later this year. In addition, the company is making servers more efficient, so that fewer machines can deliver the same computing power.

IBM’s goal is not only to reduce carbon emissions, but also to foster data centre expansions, inhibited not so much by lack of floor space, as a lack of an adequate power supply, Sams says. Fifty cents is spent on energy for every dollar of computer hardware, according to analysis by market research company IDC.This is expected to increase by 54% to 71 cents per dollar over the next four years. Reducing these costs is especially important to IBM, given that it runs eight million square feet of data centres in six continents and intends to double its computing capacity over the next three years without increasing either its power consumption or carbon emissions.

While IBM sees technological innovation as the key to creating more environmentally responsible data centres, the company also wants to help improve information flow so that data centre managers better understand the concept of ‘green’ and how to find information on improvimg the environmental performance of their operations. IBM recently set up a website,, to serve as a database of environmental incentives offered by utilities, government agencies and such like.

Given the work being done by Google, IBM and other computer-related companies, it appears the industry may be shedding its reputation for being uninformed when it comes to energy issues.

If successful, these companies may bring the kind of world- changing innovation to energy that they brought to information technology – and perhaps very quickly. Symantec says the next 12 months will be ‘pivotal’ in this regard. Indeed, if these companies have their way, cheap coal and wasteful energy devices may go the way of the hard-bound encyclopaedia, still there, but rarely the first source used.

Elisa Wood is the US correspondent for Renewable Energy World e-mail:

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