Converged Infrastructure

Data Center Generators: Hidden Assets


By Richard L. Sawyer

HP Critical Facilities ServicesJames Glanz, in his New York Times article “Power, Pollution and the Internet” notes that the data center industry, at its core, is driven by a fear of failure, or more correctly a fear of unavailability. As he correctly reports, people assume they have a right to internet applications wherever and whenever they need them. Businesses, too, have wrapped their strategies around the internet as core business function (witness the on-line nature of marketing, selling and buying car insurance in your own life).

This right to access, anytime, has forced the industry to invest heavily in standby generator systems. Mr. Glanz refers to this in his citation of the Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory for San Jose, California, and remarks on the pollution associated with stationary diesel systems used to support data center operations when power fails. It is not unusual to have a major corporate data center with a standby generator capacity of 3 to 50 megawatts of power, enough power for a small town, to support the facility when power fails.

The truth of the matter is that power does fail, and sometimes on a very wide national basis (Aug 2003 is a good example). This drives the inclusion of standby systems in data center designs.

There is a silver lining to this cloud of diesel smoke, however. First of all, there is an assumption that the diesels are always running, but in truth they are standby only – and run when the power is either out of tolerance or non-existent. By most state regulations, this is limited by license and regulation to no more than 200 - 600 hours per year, and then only for either test purposes or emergency use. And the diesels are also much cleaner in stationary usage than in automotive use, which means the actual environmental impact is very low compared to other sources, including the utility sources which supply the normal power to the data centers.

The second benefit of generators is their role in what we call “Demand Side Reduction” programs run by utility companies in answer to state regulations. Basically, any generator source that can be called on in a capacity emergency where the utilities cannot keep up with electrical demand (“brownouts”) is an asset because it can supply power to major consumers (data centers) and relieve the utility of that power demand, which can then be used for other customers. This is a relief valve for the electrical utility grid. The utility company, say in mid-August when air conditioning drives high electrical demand, can call data centers having standby generators and tell them to get off the grid so residential and office buildings’ air conditioning loads can be supplied. For data centers participating in these programs there is a financial incentive (basically to pay for the fuel used) and a qualitative incentive (who wants to be on an electrical grid that is about to fail anyway?) to participate.

 It’s a win-win-win. Residential users have a more reliable system. Utilities have a means of meeting excessive demand. And data centers can maintain that ever-so-precious internet availability that we all demand in our personal and business life for applications and computers to work where we want them and when we want them.

Check out Bill Kosik’s blog about the New York Times article: Yes, Data Centers Are Energy Hogs – But Here’s How We’re Making Huge Efficiency Gains

Learn how HP Critical Facilities Services can help you build or retrofit your data center with the capacity and flexibility to meet changing business needs.

Rick SawyerRichard L. Sawyer is a Strategist with HP Critical Facilities Services and an HP Technology Services Expert. You can check his profile in our HP Meet The Experts microsite.


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  • 25+ years experience around HP Storage. The go-to guy for news and views on all things storage..
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