Legal Perspectives: Can a Green Data Center Be Reliable?
Special interest groups, the media, and others are putting pressure on public and private data centers to implement energy conservation measures. Federal and state legislation and programs impose new efficiency requirements and also provide monetary incentives. This outside pressure adds to the urgency felt within data center organizations to reduce energy costs.
Embracing energy efficiency would seem to be desirable for data centers, but some facilities managers see energy efficiency like NASCAR racers do. Data centers are often 24/7 operations, and high-end data centers can be designed for 99.999 percent availability. Whatever an organization’s interest in cost savings, actually pursuing energy efficiency might appear threatening to data-center personnel who are concerned that complex energy conservation measures (ECM) might diminish reliability; an outage can be a job-ending event. Yet, these two goals of reliability and energy efficiency are not necessarily incompatible and, in fact, can be a “win-win” strategy.
It is key to recognize the energy characteristics of data centers. In addition to being high energy users, data centers have relatively flat load curves, as their power demand tends to remain steady throughout the day. Data centers also generate substantial heat.
Data center heat is a significant and growing problem. The heat density of boxes has gone up, but the temperature tolerance of chips has not changed appreciably. High-density racks can tax the capacity of ordinary air conditioning. Duane Morris experienced a situation recently in which a chiller serving its data center failed, causing an immediate reduction in network capabilities. Data centers are generally not efficient users of energy, and some have estimated that data centers can waste as much as 60 percent of the energy they use to cool equipment and related systems.
Implementing an effective energy conservation project can require engineering and implementation expertise that data center organizations may not possess. The solutions can include complex strategies such as installing rectifiers and converting the entire data center to direct current and eliminating the need for server-by-server rectifiers or using liquid cooling in racks.
These and other solutions we discuss are not run of the mill and, for that reason, may require outsourcing, a time-honored approach to auditing and determining the best solution to a facility’s energy use. ESCOs have been auditing buildings and designing, procuring, installing, and implementing energy conservation measures (ECMs) for decades through performance contracting. ESCOs employ performance contracts as a mechanism to overcome the first cost of ECMs and in return to share in the energy savings to recoup their capital investment. Data centers are attracting specialized ESCOs which evaluate existing data center equipment such as racks and UPS systems component by component and identify hot spots to address cooling issues and reduce costs. Traditional ESCO strategies include retrofitting HVAC and lighting systems; more sophisticated data center solutions include ultrasonic dehumidification, blanking panels, and improved under-floor airflow. The widespread adoption of energy-efficiency best practices like these by data centers could potentially save one million kilowatt hours annually in the US.
Since ESCOs play a significant role in determining the scope of their own services by performing auditing, designs, procurement, and installation, data center owners must understand the ESCO’s energy services agreement and make certain it reserves “go or no go” decision-making rights for the owner at a key points. The owner should understand precisely how any guarantee will be determined and what contractual obligations the owner will have. Owners may mistakenly assume that the ESCO will handle every aspect of a project and omit tasks that are necessary if the project is to achieve all its goals.
It is also important for the data center to differentiate between active ECMs such as cooling systems and passive measures such as the retrofitting of energy-efficient lighting. Active systems will require the same degree of reliability as the data center itself. Although a data center will generally seek a cooling system that it can operate with its own personnel, it may be desirable to arrange for supplemental outside monitoring to provide warnings and make on-line repairs if possible. It may be necessary to have a separate monitoring agreement for this purpose, and it is important to understand how the monitoring process will be conducted under that agreement and, again what requirements will be placed upon the owner.
Data centers need highly responsive emergency and maintenance services. Contracts for such services can include built-in response-time leeway, which the owner must understand. Also, the remedies are likely to be basic. No maintenance and emergency services provider can be expected to provide a contractual remedy for consequential monetary losses due to partial or complete system failures due to cooling failures.
Similarly, an energy services agreement with an ESCO might protect against additional energy costs or the replacement of failed ECMs, but it would be unusual to see business losses covered in such an agreement. In fact, nearly all energy services agreements specifically disclaim consequential or indirect loses, and some put monetary caps on any damages that an owner such as a data center may sustain. Similarly, warranties on equipment are generally limited to manufacturers’ warranties of parts and labor.
Although, it may be difficult to secure contractual protection, the author believes that a data center is unlikely to experience increased risk of system failure from new energy-efficient equipment as compared to its existing cooling and lighting equipment. In fact, the newer equipment may be more reliable than the existing equipment, and, in light of the potential financial and environmental benefits to be gained from the implementation of ECMs in data centers, the benefits should more than justify any potential risks.