It may seem a bit incongruous to talk about solar energy when nearly half the country is covered in snow, but the data center is still the energy hog of today’s economy and is constantly ratcheting up its consumption with every new hyperscale facility.
But even as Apple, Facebook and other top firms embrace solar power and other renewables, the question remains whether this is a viable option for the broader enterprise community. And if not, will the pressure to shed local data infrastructure still come from environmental corners anxious to foster greater dependence on cleaner, utility-style computing?
The key test of a technology like solar power is not in its ability to generate electricity, but in its ability to do so reliably. In a recent report, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) said that the influx of renewables into the bulk energy grid of the U.S. and Canada and the closing of aging coal-fired facilities is lowering energy reliability in the region. This could cause rates to increase as utilities up their reserve fuel stores to maintain adequate load. The report is disputed by many, to be sure, but it does point up the uncertainties that accompany changes to such fundamental infrastructure as the energy grid.
It is for this reason that high-profile projects like Apple’s support for solar farms in North Carolina and Arizona are crucial to both the data industry and the solar energy industry, says tech journalist Michael Kanellos. On the one hand, they give Apple significant green credibility, which is important not only to its customer base but much of its workforce as well. On the other, they lend legitimacy to solar power and its ability to support critical infrastructure. After all, if solar is good enough for Apple, it should be good enough for anyone.
Support from top companies like Apple is crucial for solar projects to get off the ground because it provides a long-term revenue stream that helps reduce some of the risk associated with green energy. In Monterey County, California, for example, Apple has signed a 25-year agreement to purchase nearly half the output of a 280 MW facility being built by First Solar, a contract worth $848 million. With the local utility agreeing to purchase the rest, First Solar was able to secure the necessary financing to begin construction later this year.
The data industry is rife with examples of cutting-edge technology permeating top companies before trickling down to mid-level and small firms, but this seems unlikely when it comes to solar because only the largest of the large have the means to support acres of solar arrays. But as infrastructure becomes more modular, that equation is changing. Taiwanese firm Foxconn has designed a modular solution that sports solar panels, a DC/AC conversion system and other features that enable data services to be mounted wherever the sun shines. The design has been patented in the U.S., but there is no word yet on an actual product. If it were to hit the channel someday, however, it could provide a ready means of localized, solar-powered data infrastructure.
Even if solar and other renewables do not provide adequate data loads and the five-nines reliability that the enterprise demands, they still have the potential to provide a critical layer of the modern enterprise energy platform, particularly if scale-out facilities become the norm. And as long as the transition to renewables on the grid is not rushed or haphazard, we have every reason to believe that wind and solar generation will one day be as reliable as current fossil fuels.
Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.