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Is a "Net Zero" Data Center Possible?

samzenpus posted about 2 years ago | from the lowering-the-power-bill dept.

HP 160

miller60 writes "HP Labs is developing a concept for a 'net zero' data center — a facility that combines on-site solar power, fresh air cooling and advanced workload scheduling to operate with no net energy from the utility grid. HP is testing its ideas in a small data center in Palo Alto with a 134kW solar array and four ProLiant servers. The proof-of-concept confronts challenges often seen in solar implementations, including the array's modest capacity and a limited window of generation hours – namely, when the sun shines. HP's approach focuses on boosting server utilization, juggling critical and non-critical loads, and making the most of every hour of solar generation. Can this concept work at scale?"

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160 comments

How is that a test? (4, Insightful)

khasim (1285) | about 2 years ago | (#40163625)

HP is testing its ideas in a small data center in Palo Alto with a 134kW solar array and four ProLiant servers.

Four servers is a nerd's basement.

Wouldn't you need something like 4 racks full of servers? Running something like seti@home or distributed.net?

In its own building.

Re:How is that a test? (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163797)

the main thing they're testing is the scheduling of workloads to to get the maximum benefit from their solar array. It doesn't matter how many servers they have. They'll still get useful data from this test.

Re:How is that a test? (5, Funny)

dbIII (701233) | about 2 years ago | (#40163831)

Four servers is a nerd's basement.

That's where all of HP will fit soon with their current management style.

not quite (1)

dutchwhizzman (817898) | about 2 years ago | (#40164311)

With the current management style, there will be so many reporting tools for middle management left and so few workers, that they'll need more than 4 servers per employee to fill in time sheets and surveys.

Re:not quite (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164397)

At what point will people realise that capitalism doesn't work because most investors are interested in the short-term windfalls which make themselves very rich as individuals rather than the long-term profit which keeps a company alive?

Capitalism has two primary modes: 1) merciless plundering; 2) chronic government support. The only thing which keeps it vaguely sane is the significant minority of businessmen who are passionate about their work rather than the money they make - and that's not really capitalism at all.

Re:not quite (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164437)

I think it would work a lot better if the government didn't support those companies. Allow them to fall, it will be bad for society in the short term but it will teach the individuals behind the companies that they have to think long term if they want to profit tomorrow and not just today.
With the whole government support program you essentially allows them to maximize profit by robbing the company.

Re:not quite (1)

Bert64 (520050) | about 2 years ago | (#40164807)

No it wouldn't, they would just write that gamble off as a loss and move on to the next... Smaller companies go belly up all the time, and you soon see the same people back running another company.

Something else needs to be done to ensure long term sustainable business, but i have no idea what would work.

Re:not quite (1)

drsmithy (35869) | about 2 years ago | (#40165053)

Something else needs to be done to ensure long term sustainable business, but i have no idea what would work.

It was being done, but then Reagan and Thatcher happened, and it's been deteriorating ever since.

Re:How is that a test? (5, Interesting)

jakimfett (2629943) | about 2 years ago | (#40163839)

How is that a test? Four servers is a nerd's basement.

At the very least, they can do a cost analysis of the setup. Sure, it's only 4 servers. But if it's possible to do with four, then they can extrapolate to forty, or four hundred. Granted, there are things that don't scale perfectly...things like cooling, cost of raised floors, the building itself...but now they have hard data about how many solar panels they need to make it a net electrical drain of zero.

Re:How is that a test? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164629)

Arguably you don't need to build a data center to get the numbers. Since they're only aiming for "net zero", not "off grid", electricity generation and electricity consumption are decoupled and can be looked at individually. I bet they have the consumption numbers for a data center of a given size. The generated electricity can be calculated from the efficiency of the panels and local incidence data (geographic location, weather data).

Consequently I believe they're not trying to find what the exact amount of solar panel area is that they need per server to achieve "net-zero". They probably want to test the compatibility of the individual technologies that are required for a data center which is partly solar-powered. The net-zero aspect is pure marketing. If there is more space for solar panels, why not use it and get a "net-plus" facility? If there is less, but a site is ideal for a data center for other reasons, you would not insist on net-zero either. Since they are not going off-grid, there's no harm in aiming for net-zero in a distributed way. It's probably even better because that would even out local variations at the individual sites without relying on non-renewable energy sources.

Re:How is that a test? (1)

hairyfeet (841228) | about 2 years ago | (#40164697)

But servers don't have loads only during the day so going with panels would be stupid for servers. you may get away with it with an office but NOT servers.

If you wanted to power a datacenter off of renewables then a combo of wind and molten salt solar power generation would be a much more logical choice as you can use the salt like a battery to generate power at night and use the wind to also charge batteries to insure that on days without any sun you would still have power. it just seems kinda pointless to power servers off of solar panels, its just not the right job for the tech.

Re:How is that a test? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40165307)

Hence "net zero". If you consume N power during the night, you have to generate M+N power during the day where N is the power used at night (which is fed into the grid) and M is the power used during the day. N + -N = 0.

Re:How is that a test? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40165583)

Computers (even servers) offer a relatively easy way to "go green". In most data centers power to servers is run through a high quality ups that converts ac to dc then back to well regulated AC. Cutting out AC entirely could more than make up for the loss from charging/discharging batteries. Panels -> charge controllers -> batteries -> servers. Molten salt is terribly complicated in comparison.

Re:How is that a test? (1)

mbone (558574) | about 2 years ago | (#40163921)

HP is testing its ideas in a small data center in Palo Alto with a 134kW solar array and four ProLiant servers.

Four servers is a nerd's basement.

I have more than that in my basement. Think I'll get some solar cells and put out a press release.

Re:How is that a test? (5, Interesting)

Sussurros (2457406) | about 2 years ago | (#40164063)

You do know that solar panels won't work in the basement...

I know it's a cheap joke but I'm a cheap kind of guy. My favourite basement of all time is Dean Kamen's (inventor of sedgway, half the equipment in the hospitals, and lots more - our modern day good guy Tesla and bad guy Edison all rolled into one) from his youth.

When he was a schoolkid he snuck into a museum one night and rewired the lighting of a single section. The next day he applied for the contract to do the whole museum and got laughed out of the door because he was a kid, until he told them to look at the section he had done the previous night. He narrowly avoided arrest and got the contract instead and did an excellent job.

With the money he earned he paid for a vacation for his parents and while they were away he had the family house removed from its blocks, a huge basement dug then filled with heavy lathes and state of the art engineerng goodies, and then had the house reseated.

To cover the extent of the cavernous basement he had to install a new patio over the part that the house didn't cover and when his parents came home they were thrilled to see the wonderful new patio he had built for them.

That was his last year in high school, and I'm sure that a few solar panels and clever power management wouldn't have been enough to run that particular glorious basement.

Re:How is that a test? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164033)

HP is testing its ideas in a small data center in Palo Alto with a 134kW solar array and four ProLiant servers.

Four servers is a nerd's basement.

Wouldn't you need something like 4 racks full of servers? Running something like seti@home or distributed.net?

In its own building.

We can make all kinds of plastic products by using Injection Molding [china-plas...pplier.com] , Blow Molding [china-plas...pplier.com] and roto molding.

Re:How is that a test? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164463)

Four servers is a nerd's basement.

Four servers? That's not even a Nerd-DMZ, and you also need Nerd-App, Nerd-DB and Nerd-Intranet.

Re:How is that a test? (1)

mikael (484) | about 2 years ago | (#40164803)

Wow, the Nerd-phone, Nerd-pad and Nerd-pod have a strange and yet familiar sound to them.

Re:How is that a test? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164871)

HP is testing its ideas in a small data center in Palo Alto with a 134kW solar array and four ProLiant servers.

Four servers is a nerd's basement.

Wouldn't you need something like 4 racks full of servers? Running something like seti@home or distributed.net?

In its own building.

There are a lot of small mom-and-pop shops that only have a handful of servers. Many large corporations also have many small regional (sales) offices.

Re:How is that a test? (1)

operagost (62405) | about 2 years ago | (#40165745)

Running something like seti@home or distributed.net?

Wait... I thought this wasn't supposed to be a nerd's basement?

No! (1)

www.sorehands.com (142825) | about 2 years ago | (#40163627)

As a net 0, No. It can't work from solar. The amount of electrical storage would make it impracticable.

However, this is a good idea, not as a net 0, but for cost and sustainability. Having solar during the day would reduce cost and cut down the backup generator requirement. If there is a brown-out/black-out on the power grid, during the day, you have solar. At night you'd still need diesel.

Re:No! (4, Insightful)

nzac (1822298) | about 2 years ago | (#40163647)

As a net 0, No.

You can both consume power from the grid and produce it. The extra they make during the day that someone else uses is what they use at night.

Its a PR stunt though, if a bunch of companies got together and funded a massive solar farm it would have the same result and probably be more efficient.

Re:No! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164663)

Its a PR stunt though, if a bunch of companies got together and funded a massive solar farm it would have the same result and probably be more efficient.

And such "bunches of companies getting together" exist: that is exactly what your local power company is. If solar panels are an efficient way to produce electricity (they aren't), your power company will use them and get benefits of scale. Everyone making their own electricity is like everyone making their own shoes, starting with raising a cow for leather. It may be fun as a hobby, but efficient it isn't.

Re:No! (1)

nzac (1822298) | about 2 years ago | (#40164927)

No its renewable energy subsidized by PR budgets. While it does not fix anything at least some money is invested in renewable sources.

Re:No! (1)

Bert64 (520050) | about 2 years ago | (#40164819)

Feeding solar in like that just causes inefficiency, you still need the same level of power generation from other (coal/gas etc) sources on the grid to cope with nights and cloudy days.

Re:No! (1)

nzac (1822298) | about 2 years ago | (#40164951)

Depending on the source they can adjust power output depending on the required power.
On a sunny day you don't need to burn as much fossil fuels and when its raining you burn the normal amount but overall less hydrocarbons are burnt.

Re:No! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163657)

It's still on the grid. Daytime it produces surplus electricity that is not stored but dumped on the grid.

"Dumped on the grid" (2)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | about 2 years ago | (#40164181)

You don't understand this electricity grid thing, do you? It isn't "dumped on the grid". It gets used. While it supplies power to the grid, either other generation has a slightly smaller load or there is a minute voltage rise (which causes things like ovens to warm up a tiny bit faster so they reach desired temperature a little quicker.) This is the whole concept of the grid - lots of generation that comes on at different times and is carefully managed to meet the load requirements. Has it occurred to you, for instance, that when a conventional generator is down for maintenance it takes power from the grid to supply lighting, heating and equipment? We don't say it is useless because it has to be shut down periodically.

Re:"Dumped on the grid" (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164675)

Your explanation is longer, but the other AC succinctly conveyed what happens. The surplus electricity (i.e. that which is not consumed locally) is indeed "dumped on the grid", to the effect that you describe: voltage increases slightly and other power sources (which can save resources by producing less electricity) compensate.

Re:"Dumped on the grid" (1)

DemoLiter3 (704469) | about 2 years ago | (#40165509)

All these "net zero" concepts are non functional without a grid, because they need it as a storage and they don't implement their own storage. And they assume this service is for free.

While such installations are rare, the service is indeed free, but the question is whether this concept will survive on a large scale - no it will not. If the amount of renewable energy increases and everyone just keeps using the grid as a free storage facility, the grid operator will have to invest more and more to extend this storage capacity. This includes maintaining of the true storage like the pumped water but also maintaining backup generation plants and transport capability. Other negative effects include lesser profitability of the conventional plants.

Sooner or later, this will require offloading of the additional costs to the consumers. Sooner or later the "net zero" facilities will have to pay additional fees for using the storage capacity of the grid provider.

Currently, this is what we see looming here in Germany - increasing amount of renewable energy while at the same time attempting nuclear phaseout leads to funny effects - the transport capacity of the one of the best maintained grids in the world are at limit and need massive investments. On the other hand, more gas power plants are needed to be built to be able to compensate random production - but they are getting less profitable. The effect is - the grid providers are currently pushing proposals for additional assessments on electricity - the consumers will soon have to pay additional fees for supporting extension of the grid infrastructure and for subsidizing of new coal and gas power plants. Either this be passed as law, or the providers simply increase their prices - either way the costs of the renewables have to be compensated and our already highest electricity prices in Europe and likely worldwide (currently ~27 eurocents/kWh on average) will skyrocket even further.

Re:No! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163661)

At night you'd still need diesel.

If you have "Free extra power" coming in it might be a better idea to to use a rechargeable system like a fuel cell.

Re:No! (2)

PhrstBrn (751463) | about 2 years ago | (#40163931)

Technically, you can get 24 hour power generation with pure solar energy. Excess power can be stored as molten salts, which can in turn be used on steam turbines during off peak hours. That said, on the micro-scale that the article is talking about, I'm not sure this would even be feasible.

Re:No! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164065)

Shit, so you are saying that hooking up my microwave to a solar panel and putting a bunch of salt inside of it ISNT a good idea? I...I...gotta go ...do something..now BYE!

Am I the only one (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163631)

That thought this "Net Zero"?

http://www.netzero.net/

Re:Am I the only one (1)

game kid (805301) | about 2 years ago | (#40163673)

Nope. Fond memories of this TV spot [youtube.com] , and the other one with a young man instead of Ms. Blaine (ph), where the "Willy-nilly" guy in the former video says "What you are doing is flagrantly un-American!" and the last syllable sounds kinda like it ends with an "m" instead.

I still use my Netzero email address as a secondary, and something of a spam catcher.

Re:Am I the only one (2)

dgatwood (11270) | about 2 years ago | (#40163689)

And you could probably run servers on it, but you'd have to use DynDNS or similar.

But seriously, the cynic in me has to wonder how many of those employees they're about to lay off wouldn't be going away if they hadn't spent who-knows-how-much-money on a server farm that they probably don't actually need. Not that this one project would pay for more than a handful of employee-years by itself, mind you, but such waste rarely occurs in isolation. It's like seeing a termite in your house. You can be fairly certain that for every one you see, there are a thousand more destroying your home's foundation.

12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (4, Funny)

DontScotty (978874) | about 2 years ago | (#40163643)

At the equator... then you'd have some uptime!

Re:12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (4, Funny)

subreality (157447) | about 2 years ago | (#40163817)

I must regretfully inform you that 2/3 of the surface of the planet in question is covered in water, and it's considerably more than that along the line of the equator. Please plan to install 8 or 9 of your data centers on ships.

For the ones on land you will be choosing from Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil, Gabon, Congo, Kenya, Somalia and Indonesia. I suggest budgeting for a considerable number of guns.

I personally think people over-A/C most data centers (computers really don't care if it gets kind of warm; they only really care about temperatures that their human slaves would object to), but in these places... well, I hope you're friends with Carrier.

But all these problems can be overcome. I'm sure you'll do well with the abundant free sunshine!

Re:12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163897)

"I personally think people over-A/C most data centers (computers really don't care if it gets kind of warm; they only really care about temperatures that their human slaves would object to), but in these places... well, I hope you're friends with Carrier."

Clearly you've never felt the heat of a high density rack...

Re:12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (4, Interesting)

pLnCrZy (583109) | about 2 years ago | (#40163993)

Efficiently evacuating the heat output is a different issue than dumping excess cold air into a room to compensate for lack of the former.

I've been in "warm" data centers that focus on getting rid of the heat rather than overcooling the intake -- the servers were perfectly happy and their energy costs were quite reasonable.

Re:12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (1)

serviscope_minor (664417) | about 2 years ago | (#40164403)

Clearly you've never felt the heat of a high density rack...

Sure I have.

If you install your racks well, then the intake air will be very much separated from the exhaust air.

Die temperatures run about 30 degrees above ambient if the server has been built OK. This compares to laptops which run sometimes at 40 degrees over. With this kind of temperature gradient, you can have intake air at nearly 40 degrees, and still not hit the 70 degree trip point. I'd be a bit suspicious of running hard disks quite that hot, and the effeect on fan bearings, but i have no hard data to back up that suspicion.

Running too cold really does mess up hard disks though, much faster than running too hot.

As for your high density rack comment, if you stood behind that, it would be blasting out 60 degree air at quite a rate and would be deeply, deeply unpleasant to work in. But the computers still won't care.

Re:12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164521)

http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2012/03/23/too-hot-for-humans-but-google-servers-keep-humming/

google, which does all kind of things to its datacenter to save every penny, says that if you don't value the single node (you have a fault tolerant mesh) then you can go with no cooling.

Re:12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164489)

For the ones on land you will be choosing from Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil

I know the entire post was a joke but... what the hell is Columbia?

Re:12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (1)

MiniMike (234881) | about 2 years ago | (#40165807)

I know the entire post was a joke but... what the hell is Columbia?

There is a surprising number of Columbia's [wikipedia.org] to choose from. Take your pick as to which would be best for a data center.

Re:12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164649)

When you put it like that, it's kind of nice to know all the countries full of savages will get cooked first as global warming kicks in.
(Well except Brazil, I don't mind Brazil)

The less Indonesians and Somalians the better.

Re:12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40165023)

I personally think people over-A/C most data centers

Not sure I'd say they are too air-conditioned. Sure they could stand to run hotter. But if you do that and the A/C fails, you've got like 5 minutes to get the problem resolved before the servers die. Make it nice and cool, set the alarm temperature for something slightly higher but still very cool, and then when the A/C dies at 3AM your oncall person will still have 30 minutes to get there, open the server room doors, and get some fans running so that nothing dies before the A/C service guys can get there and fix the problem.

Re:12 of these centers, spaced out evenly (1)

MiniMike (234881) | about 2 years ago | (#40165769)

How about two data centers- one at each pole? Each one would have 6 months of sunlight, although probably at a high air mass. Cooling would not be much of a problem, some of that heat might even be appreciated (first data center to request P4's?). You might need weapons to defend against polar bears (if the North Pole ice is thick enough), but fewer than to defend a data center in any of the areas mentioned above. The penguins at the South Pole might be a welcome sight. I don't think the connectivity problems would be much worse than for the equatorial data centers on ships.

the story behind the story (1)

slashmydots (2189826) | about 2 years ago | (#40163651)

They're actually building it into a genius bitcoin mining mega-rig! No overhead for utilities?! They're rich! Okay, just kidding...although I didn't see any evidence that they're not, lol.

P.S. my electric costs were $40/mo and my bitcoin income from it was around $54 so yeah....but FPGA miners can run at 14W and can alone hit 0.63x the performance of my own Radeon card rig (which ran at around 480W). So setting aside the bitcoin mining joke, no matter what they're using the place for, eliminating the utilities is HUGE! It easily blows away hardware cost divided by useable life for certain server types.

Re:the story behind the story (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163811)

: eliminating the utilities is HUGE!:

In reality, this isn't "eliminating" the utilities. It's *pre-paying* them.

Easy peasy (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163665)

Just build a nuclear reactor in the same building complex and then build your datacenter around it.

Silly headline (3, Insightful)

DoofusOfDeath (636671) | about 2 years ago | (#40163669)

If you're already assuming that a data center can include its own power generation systems (solar, wind, hamsters, etc.), then of course it's possible.

Just include a local coal or nuclear plant on the datacenter's property. Or, if the "renewable" detail is critical, create one in the middle of the Mojave dessert, with 30 sq. miles of solar panels, which during the sunny times also charge up a 400-ton array of lithion-ion batteries or a flywheel generator.

So I wonder if "possible" is really what you're asking.

Re:Silly headline (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | about 2 years ago | (#40163715)

Yes, it's also possible that it's the answer to the age old question "why are we hear?" - to build a Dyson sphere data center around the Sun!

Re:Silly headline (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163883)

I think geothermal power generation would be a better option than solar. It's just as abundant, but it works 24 hours a day and has much more generation capacity/sq ft of footprint. Solar arrays are massive and produce relatively little electricity compared to other methods of renewable energy.

Re:Silly headline (4, Informative)

Sique (173459) | about 2 years ago | (#40164323)

The most of the large geothermal energy projects have been abandoned - because of the increasing number of local earthquakes. Geothermal energy obviously comes not free. The energy you withdraw from the soil seems to cause the underground to change dynamics.

See the Basel Geothermal Project [nytimes.com] as an example.

Re:Silly headline (1)

QuantumRiff (120817) | about 2 years ago | (#40165405)

Geothermal does not cause earthquakes. Geothermal where you don't put the water back underground when your done causes them. My old town was heated in large part by geothermal, and in fact, this year, My old University (www.oit.edu) is scheduled to finish a brand new 1.2MW power station (they already have a 256Kw one).

Geothermal is actually growing fairly fast. The oil industry has pioneered tech to drill much deeper, so you don't have to be restricted to where the sites are near the surface.

No flywheel or batteries needed (3, Insightful)

lakeland (218447) | about 2 years ago | (#40163989)

You can pass the excess power on to the grid according to the definitions they're using. As long is you've given more power to the grid than you've taken out, you're a winner.

Didn't Apple just announce this? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163691)

http://news.cnet.com/8301-13579_3-57436553-37/apples-main-data-center-to-go-fully-renewable-this-year/

Re:Didn't Apple just announce this? (5, Insightful)

EvanED (569694) | about 2 years ago | (#40163735)

No, they didn't.

Roughly speaking, there are three levels of "greenness", for lack of a better word. "Off the grid" means you're totally self-sufficient; probably solar during the day stored to batteries for night, combined with ultra-efficient stuff. "Net zero" means you self-generate a surplus of power sometimes and a deficit others, selling your excess to the power company and buying your need. Being "fully renewable", like what Apple announced, "just" means you're buying all renewable energy. If you read the article you linked to, you'd see that Apple will only be generating 60% of its need, which means it's far from net zero.

I'm not actually sure how much the last means in practice, considering that it's not like they have dividers that say "this electron came from solar so it goes to Apple, while this electron came from coal so it can't." So really what it turns into is Apple giving the power company more money so that hopefully they'll build more renewable sources. Not to say that I don't applaud the decision, and even 60% generation is impressive, but it is indirect.

Re:Didn't Apple just announce this? (1)

alex67500 (1609333) | about 2 years ago | (#40164493)

I'm not actually sure how much the last means in practice, considering that it's not like they have dividers that say "this electron came from solar so it goes to Apple, while this electron came from coal so it can't." So really what it turns into is Apple giving the power company more money so that hopefully they'll build more renewable sources. Not to say that I don't applaud the decision, and even 60% generation is impressive, but it is indirect.

The more people buy "renewable" energy, the more other people get non-renewable. But to be fair to electrical companies (at least what I can see here in Europe), they seem the be re-investing the extra money from the tree-hug^H^H^H renewable energy buyers into more renewable energy projects.

Re:Didn't Apple just announce this? (2)

bcrowell (177657) | about 2 years ago | (#40164893)

Roughly speaking, there are three levels of "greenness", for lack of a better word. "Off the grid" means you're totally self-sufficient; probably solar during the day stored to batteries for night, combined with ultra-efficient stuff. "Net zero" means you self-generate a surplus of power sometimes and a deficit others, selling your excess to the power company and buying your need.

Not really. First, being off the grid typically isn't a choice people make when they have the option of being on the grid. It's usually what people do when they live in remote areas where the grid simply doesn't reach. And anyway, being off the grid is normally less green than being net zero and on the grid. Most people who are off the grid are under capacity for their needs, and typically they make up for that by running a generator sometimes -- which is very bad environmentally. (Battery systems that let you store energy in the day for use at night are extremely big and expensive, and I don't know how common they are in real life. They require maintenance and are dangerous if not properly maintained. I suspect that a gigantic battery is not likely to be very green, either. You have all those chemicals, which have to be disposed of when the battery reaches its end of life.) On the other hand, if they have excess capacity, that's energy that's being wasted rather than going to people who are on the grid, so again it's less green than being on the grid. And it's essentially impossible to have an off-grid system that has exactly the right capacity for your needs. That's because energy production varies dramatically from day to day and month to month due to clouds and the height of the sun in the sky.

On-grid photovoltaics are actually really nice environmentally, because they produce the most power on hot, sunny days, which are exactly the days when a lot of people are using air conditioners. The solar energy helps keep the electric company from having to fire up more generators and feed more fossil fuels into them.

Here [nytimes.com] is an article that touches on how some of this plays out in real life.

Re:Didn't Apple just announce this? (1)

petermgreen (876956) | about 2 years ago | (#40165145)

On-grid photovoltaics are actually really nice environmentally

Depends on the location.

In a hot climate i'd agree with you. OTOH here in the UK on-grid photovoltaics are a fiasco that are only being installed because of massive government subsidies. Our climate isn't really sunny enough for photovoltaics to make sense and our peak electrical load comes from winter heating not summer aircon.

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They should build in nunavut (1)

CodeReign (2426810) | about 2 years ago | (#40163725)

They should build them in Nunavut.A couple of months are only daytime and it's cold enough that you'd be more likely to pay for heating to keep the machines within their optimum temperature.

The solar seems like overkill (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163743)

A good $250K worth of solar power gear and that's if you're a bargain shopper. I'd estimate it will realistically generate almost 500KWH/day. That gives you ~20KW continuous load capability with net metering to remain net zero. I'd be surprised if those four servers at full load on all cores required even 4KW total, maybe half that typically so 48KWH/day. We don't get specs on their HVAC but in that relatively mild climate I'd say 50KWH/day would easily cool 3000SF with a modern heat pump in cooling mode.

Solar isn't ready (2)

Karmashock (2415832) | about 2 years ago | (#40163757)

You can't build something that will do the same job but not economically. These will remain concepts and prototypes until we can get a solar cell that is very efficient at a competitive price.

I wish this weren't the case... who likes being a slave to the grid but no one is making solar sustainable without absurd subsidies. The germans are making a big push for it right now which can only go to sad places because germany isn't known for it's sun and has huge energy needs. I wish them well and I hope I'm wrong... but it's looking to implode as soon as the maintenance costs start ramping up. We know a little about this in california. We've been building these sorts of power plants for decades. They work fine initially. But five years down the road everything goes pear shaped and you have another eco ruin in the desert.

Re:Solar isn't ready (1)

DarwinSurvivor (1752106) | about 2 years ago | (#40163871)

Does anyone know the theoretical maximum output of solar energy per square foot? You only get so much energy hitting the ground, so it may not even be possible with a 100% efficient solar cell. Just throwing that out there.

Re:Solar isn't ready (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163945)

about 1000watts per square meter. 1300 something before it hit atmo.

Re:Solar isn't ready (2)

Karmashock (2415832) | about 2 years ago | (#40163947)

Depends entirely on the surface area. The point with solar is to make it work you need to be able to cover a HUGE surface area. If you covered the whole state of Nevada with solar cells we could probably feed total US electrical demand and then some. But short of that it's a waste of time.

If we can make it cheap then we can put it on every roof and at least reduce everyone's energy demand. But the price has to be very very low or it won't make any sense. It's not just the cost of the cells it's the installation, maintenance, and infrastructure.

Re:Solar isn't ready (1)

DarwinSurvivor (1752106) | about 2 years ago | (#40165219)

Does anyone know the theoretical maximum output of solar energy per square foot? You only get so much energy hitting the ground, so it may not even be possible with a 100% efficient solar cell. Just throwing that out there.

Depends entirely on the surface area. The point with solar is to make it work you need to be able to cover a HUGE surface area. If you covered the whole state of Nevada with solar cells we could probably feed total US electrical demand and then some. But short of that it's a waste of time.

That was kind of my point.

Re:Solar isn't ready (1)

CrimsonAvenger (580665) | about 2 years ago | (#40165675)

Does anyone know the theoretical maximum output of solar energy per square foot?

About 120W/ft^2, assuming ~100% efficiency.

With current technology, we're talking maybe 25W/ft^2.

Batteries are ready, or other power sources (0)

dbIII (701233) | about 2 years ago | (#40163879)

If it's in California even expensive photovoltaics and a huge number of batteries are probably going to come out to less per MW than the prices from the basket case you call an electricity industry.

Also with the small amount of power required (in generation terms) you could run the place from power generated by burning things like the waste products of sugar cane milling (bagasse burning co-generation plants has been around for decades), methane from a sewerage treatment plant (decades again) or others from a long list of small scale power plants that could still feed a huge data centre.

To me an exercise in running four servers on solar panels sounds like a 1990s high school project to show the kids what sort of stuff was being put in to power remote communications equipment in the 1980s.

Re:Batteries are ready, or other power sources (0)

Karmashock (2415832) | about 2 years ago | (#40163929)

You would think, but our deserts are littered with the ruins of a many such projects over the decades. Google "Abandoned California solar" or wind...

care to add another failure to the pile? We have a lot of power plants that produce a lot of power. None of them are "green"... when it comes to depending on whether the lights will actually come on, you need to use dependable technology.

The alternative is importing power from other states or even mexico. And what sort of power plants do they use there? Coal, gas, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric... If your concern is global warming you might as well just cut your losses and do it in state. It isn't any better for the biosphere to have the Mexicans do it and then import the power at an inflated cost

Re:Batteries are ready, or other power sources (0)

dbIII (701233) | about 2 years ago | (#40164143)

Your state is littered with the ruins of a lot of failed government projects of many kinds so the type is irrelevant. BTW, I'm from a completely different country but we stupidly based an electricity trading system on your Enron disaster so I'm quite familiar with how bad your system was and still is over there.

Re:Batteries are ready, or other power sources (2)

Karmashock (2415832) | about 2 years ago | (#40164193)

The Enron system was set up to fail on purpose.

It was a political struggle. There is a huge struggle between public and private sector in my country. Anything the public sector has it doesn't want to give up. It involves power political blocks, money, power, unions, etc.

The system wasn't set up that way because the companies wanted it that way. it was set up that way because that was the law.

Most of the problems came from the state insisting that power be bought on a day to day basis. Power utilities don't like that. They charge very high rates for daily contracts and have much more reasonable rates for five year contracts. Prices spiked largely because much of the grid was forced to buy power daily.

I live within the confines of the DWP though and that was not a problem we had to deal with. As a public entity the DWP didn't have to follow the same rules and could make long term contracts unlike the private entities that were forced to buy it daily. As a result, my power remained cheap and reliable while much of the state was having black out problems.

The whole thing was used as evidence that power distribution should be a public responsibility.

In any case, the screwed up politics don't really matter. The tech isn't ready. If you want to waste your money on half baked projects then that's your business. God knows my own peers are always keen to follow up one mistake with another. I just wish they'd do it with their own money instead of everyone's and clean up their messes when they inevitably shut down.

Re:Batteries are ready, or other power sources (1)

dbIII (701233) | about 2 years ago | (#40164785)

Sorry kid, it ultimately was set up and the responsibility of your state government so you've missed the point. Theives are not supposed to be able to easily take advantage of such a situation and it was a truly epic failure. Using screwed up projects in the ruins of that basket case as an example as to why any form of electricity generation is pointless and misleading because you could choose anything.

Re:Solar isn't ready (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164431)

Shut up shill. A google search indicated only two publications that say anything about abandoned plants "littering" the desert. They plagiarized each other and were full of libertarian inflammation without context or sufficient background. In other words they were shills as well. Sad assed slimy black hearted weasly lying shills littering the internet are a serious problem. Solar plants are not.

not really scalable, not location agnostic. (1)

wierd_w (1375923) | about 2 years ago | (#40163827)

Really, this idea has lots of warm fuzzy, but it won't work as a general industry practice.

Take my current location: last summer we had epic heatwaves of triple digit ambient daytime temps. Using open air cooling those servers would be actively overheating just by being turned on, let alone running code. Generating their own heat, they would risk serious failures. In palo alto, where they have a cooling ocean breeze blowing inland and moderating summer temperatures, it might work. In the landlocked hellhole I live in, average summer hatwaves would devistate their servers horribly.

Then you have the problem with the realestate needed for the solar arrays themselves and with the low efficiency of current energy storage technologies, and the high voltages needed to efficiently power a data center. Solar PV is DC, and is not made to supply high voltages. To get the high voltages, you need to turn it to AC, so you can use a transformer. Then you have to turn it back into DC at the high voltage, so you can efficiently distribute it through the datacenter. That's 2 great big energy vampires right there. Add the weaksauce of current solar generation efficiencies, and you have a "are you smoking crack!?" Moment.

While you might be able to utilize idealized conditions at idealized locations to make a low cost data center, you don't get to dictate that more than half the time. Somebody in rekjavik could make use all the geothermal power, and freezing cold outside for a really cheap datacenter too. Doesn't mean somebody in say, bahrain could do the same thing. Its not location agnostic.

Likewise, the power content of solar rays is not constant across the planet, so the costs of powering with solar vs the land utilization costs needed to run a datacenter that does more than just sit there to look pretty are non-trivial, and may well be outright impossible in certain areas.

I don't see this being more than just a pipedream.

Re:not really scalable, not location agnostic. (2)

Neil Boekend (1854906) | about 2 years ago | (#40164599)

DC to DC conversions can be done with 95+ % efficiency. Convert it to 10 MHz, push it to a high efficiency transformer (those are easy at these freqs) at 99% efficiency and convert it back to DC (at high voltage the 0.7 V of a diode isn't a big drop). It costs energy, but not that much.

Can this concept work at scale? (1)

hawguy (1600213) | about 2 years ago | (#40163841)

No this concept can't work at scale - 130KW means around 10,000 sq ft of solar panels -- all to power 4 blade servers. If they were in a c3000 enclosure, they could put 8 blades in 6U - so could fit 56 blades in a 42U rack.

If they need 130KW and 10,000 sq feet of solar panels to power 4 blades, they'd need 14 times more panels to power a 56 blades in a full rack, or 140,000 sq feet of panels, all to power 6 sq feet of servers.

So a small 12,000 sq foot datacenter can hold around 1000 times more servers, so you'd need 140M sq feet of panels, or around 5 square miles of solar panels.

That doesn't seem very scalable.

Re:Can this concept work at scale? (1)

Entropius (188861) | about 2 years ago | (#40163875)

Why the heck do you need 130KW for 4 blade servers?

Re:Can this concept work at scale? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163951)

Those servers use around 526 watts each at a power factor of 0.97, so they draw 542 -ish from the grid. Add in another 30% for inefficiencies in the UPS and you have just over 704 watts. The solar panels will only generate power for 5 hours per day, so divide the 134 kW by 24 and multiply by 5 and you get 27.9 kWh. That's 40 servers, give or take. Maybe they just forgot a zero?

Re:Can this concept work at scale? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40163973)

Are you sure the other 90% isn't to power the air conditioning?

Re:Can this concept work at scale? (2)

aXis100 (690904) | about 2 years ago | (#40164367)

Because the sun only shines for about 4 peak-equivalent hours per day, so that 130KW peak array only produces enough to support a constant 21KW load.

Next you have to realise that whatever power the servers are using will end up as heat, which also has to be removed from the building with an AC system.

Still, even half of that at 10kW would seem pretty high for 4 servers.

If they're using ProLiant servers... (3, Interesting)

subreality (157447) | about 2 years ago | (#40163845)

... Then the answer is probably no. I used to stack Dells floor to ceiling in the racks and never had a problem with power. Just interleave a PDU every so often and plug 'em all in.

Then I got a job at an HP shop. Started putting DL360s and DL380s in a rack. Breaker pops. Break out the clamp meter. No, the breaker's no defective. Those things GUZZLED. I have no idea what they did with the extra juice.

Anyway, if that's what they're using, they should forget about it. But perhaps their hardware has improved since then. People are paying more attention to power these days.

Cost (2)

mbone (558574) | about 2 years ago | (#40163953)

Can this concept work at scale?"

Almost anything can be done if you don't care what it costs. What I don't see here (or in the similar Apple and Google announcements) is any indication of what their cost target is. Does anyone have any idea what their electricity costs need to be (or what the average datacenter revenue per megaWatt is)?

Solar panel costs (2, Insightful)

HuguesT (84078) | about 2 years ago | (#40164089)

Does this experience account for the solar panel manufacturing costs and their environmental footprint as well? Even the most optimistic [sciencedaily.com] studies admit it is not zero.

Wow NetZero is still in business (2)

maxbash (1350115) | about 2 years ago | (#40164325)

I haven't heard about that ISP for long time, no they are building a Data Center! It's amazing some of the things the things I don't hear about.

maybe we should ask (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40164441)

these guys http://www.netzero.net/

Unary (2)

Lord Lode (1290856) | about 2 years ago | (#40164835)

Sure it's possible to have a Net Zero datacenter: Just use unary coding instead of binary, with 0 as the unary digit.

For example, by binary number 101 would become as 00000.

See? As a result, all the bits will be zero. Net zero. That means the data will weigh less, and it's good for the environment! A win for everyone.

It's only Net Zero in a bubble (1)

EmagGeek (574360) | about 2 years ago | (#40165595)

There is no such thing as a net zero anything when you look at the dust-to-dust analysis. Things always cost energy.

In this case, it is only a net zero proposition when observed inside the confined bubble of the datacenter. However, when you look at the total energy expenditure, it is hopeless to try to call this a "green" solution.

Currently, it takes about 30MWh of energy to produce 1kW of full-sun solar capacity. So, their 134kW solar farm cost about 4GWh. Of course, with a 30,000 hour full-sun payback cycle, the solar farm will never produce that in its useful lifespan of 25 years, let alone with most of its energy being consumed by the datacenter.

This is not even to mention the energy cost of building the datacenter, and the things inside the datacenter, maintaining them, and then managing the waste when they are discarded.

So, no, this is not a net zero project - not by a long shot. In fact, I would venture a guess that it is actually more costly from an environmental standpoint than just building a traditional datacenter powered by electricity produced from NatGas or Nuclear, especially when adding the toxic waste emissions from producing silicon solar cells to the tremendous energy required.

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