From the Valley of the Green Giant, Google Energy Czar Lowers the Heat

Bill Weihl, Google’s green energy czar, says the computer you’re likely using now is a bit like a toaster. It takes in energy and produces heat. A typical network server is more energy-efficient, but Weihl says it’s usually loaded with cheap parts and still wastes a third of the power it consumes, which emanates as heat. That’s not really hot enough to toast bread, and probably not enough to bring a teapot to boil. But a key issue for the industry is that it takes as much electricity to cool a typical data center as it takes to run the servers inside it.

So it was no minor accomplishment for Google to recently cut its energy use roughly in half, which is what Weihl told a conference in San Diego yesterday afternoon. You could even say it makes Google a green giant in the Valley (ho, ho, ho). It’s also worth noting that Weihl says engineers at the Mountain View, CA, technology colossus achieved the reduction by rejecting industry “best practices” and designing their own servers and data centers.

The two-day symposium on “Greening the Internet Economy” in itself represents a growing recognition by the ICT industry (Information and Communications Technology) that the computer and everything it’s connected to consumes enormous amounts of power. Also noteworthy is the fact that the California Public Utilities Commission co-sponsored the conference with U.C. San Diego, because of the role the agency has played in recent years in promoting renewable energy and curbing global warming. Weihl, a former computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former CTO of Akamai Technologies, got top billing as keynote speaker on the opening day.

Weihl says Google has committed itself to being carbon neutral by reducing power use, relying on renewable energy and investing in projects that cut greenhouse gas emissions. It’s seen by many as a noble goal, but going green also impacts Google’s bottom line. For the past seven years, Google has been designing its own servers because it saves money over the long run. Weihl says the company spends between $20 and $100 more for each server it buys, depending on size. But he says the extra cost pays for itself in reduced energy costs within six to 12 months.

The Internet search engine giant also designs and builds its own data centers, using evaporative cooling to keep its systems running. Citing figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, Weihl says the typical enterprise data center has a power usage effectiveness, or PUE, of 2. That means a facility consumes twice as much power as the computer equipment inside it. Weihl says Google has reduced its PUE to 1.2.

“Overall, through the efficiency work that we’ve done by hiring some really smart, clever engineers who were willing to take some risks, we are fairly confident that we’ve cut our energy use in half relative to where it would be if we had followed essentially industry best practices,” Weihl said. “That’s a lesson that it’s possible to do that and doesn’t require exotic technologies.”

Google, however, has been slow to share its discoveries with the industry. It began releasing some information on its data centers after the company joined with others in 2007 to launch the Climate Savers Computing Initiative with the goal of reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 54 million tons each year. “It’s a very fine balance we need to strike between opening to the whole world and helping the world, but also retaining the competitive advantage we’ve got in the industry,” Weihl said.

As much as Google and the rest of the industry can do to save power on the back end, even more energy is wasted by personal computer users. Weihl says all of the world’s desktops and laptops consume about one and a half to two times as much energy as all the servers and data centers. Power use by computers around the world is sure to grow, because right now only 20 percent of the world has access to computers.

But applying some of the lessons learned at Google could have a huge impact on climate change, Weihl says. “That could buy us a lot of time. It wouldn’t solve the problem, but it could buy us time.”

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3 responses to “From the Valley of the Green Giant, Google Energy Czar Lowers the Heat”

  1. The waste heat from data centers is an under used asset. Preheating water for restrooms and cafeterias comes to mind as a possible recovery method. Google could probably supply preheated water for the whole community. Evaporative cooling (cooling towers)works very well but consumes large volumes of water and Calif. is chronically short of water. Maybe they can provide free hot tub use for everyone.

  2. If you used direct liquid cooling, you could get the water up to 40-50C without overheating the processors, which would be useful for a lot of applications.

    The water consumption for 300 servers is about the same as for a typical household, and you can use reclaimed water, so it is not as bad as using all the electricity for air conditioning.

    Steve Harrington