Getting to Green: PG&E Takes Proactive Steps

Is an incentive program the right way to drive increased greenness in storage and server operations?

If Adam Smith were still alive, he would probably bristle at the notion of a company encouraging rational action by consumers. If deploying more energy-efficient IT infrastructure would assure reduced power consumption and lower energy costs to an enterprise, why wouldn't everyone take the necessary steps automatically -- driven by enlightened self interest? Why would the power company, in this case Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), be offering incentives to companies to reduce energy costs by helping them to buy more energy-efficient platforms?

Mark Bramfitt and Randall Cole say that an "enlightened regulatory environment" in Northern California is helping them to "sweeten the pot" for customers by encouraging them to take measures today to reduce energy consumption that they might otherwise have deferred. Bramfitt, senior program manager for PG&E's Customer Energy Management program, says the tremendous growth in energy demand needs to be addressed today, and by any means possible. He notes that over 400 megawatts of power are currently being consumed by data centers in Northern California, and he anticipates 50 to 75 megawatts of additional demand in the next 12 months. His goal is to try and reduce the curve, and if he meets his objectives, the regulatory community will reward PG&E. It's a win-win.

PG&E has a broad portfolio of energy efficiency programs. Many other utility companies maintain customer education programs to help users better insulate their homes, understand energy stickers on home appliances and make better product selections, and even encourage the replacement of incandescent light bulbs with less power-consuming alternatives such as fluorescent and LED bulbs. PG&E has taken an additional step in its outreach to data centers: it is helping companies buy greener technology with financial incentives.

Bramfitt explains that his efforts, since launching the program two years ago, have evolved from customer education and technical support to customer incentive programs. He has been meeting with both consumers and vendors, leveraging the latter to disseminate information about the program to IT departments that may not know about it. He acknowledges that utility power is typically a facility issue, and not an IT issue. IT doesn't see the bill for the power that it consumes.

"We began by meeting with vendors to encourage them to use high-quality power supplies that deliver at least 80 percent efficiency in the conversion of utility power into the power required by servers, networking equipment, and storage arrays. There are a lot of crappy power supplies in a lot of equipment out there that are simply wasting power."

His next step, and a controversial one, was to begin considering actual hardware platforms from vendors that claimed a power consumption reduction for their wares versus hardware that was currently being deployed. The one product that has received the nod from Bramfitt and his senior project manager, Randall Cole, is an array from Copan Systems.

As part of an incentive application that PG&E received from a customer considering using Copan Systems' massive array of independent disks (MAID) array, PG&E needed to validate Copan’s claims that they were providing greener storage than the run-of-the-mill RAID array. Cole evaluated materials submitted by the vendor to justify their pitch that spinning down 75 percent of the spindles in an array at any given time could make a significant dent in power consumed by the array.

Copan targets retention storage, data that is not accessed very frequently but that must be retained for business reasons. The thinking is that placing data on disk, then spinning down the majority of un-accessed disk in the cabinet, is a good retention strategy that blows the socks off of storing the data in always on RAID sets that chew up power whether the data is being accessed or not.

Bramfitt and Cole liked the concept, read the materials provided by Copan, but still couldn't document the real savings. "We reached a compromise," Bramfitt reported, "and approved the product for our program when they showed us that the array had a throttle function that only enabled 25 percent of the drives to be active at any given time. We verified this with our own measurements of power consumption by Copan versus standard disk arrays with comparable capacity."

Bramfitt's approval means that PG&E will provide financial incentives to companies that elect to deploy the Copan Systems technology. He is also working with companies to incent them to deploy server virtualization (brand name is irrelevant) that will "help IT departments bring their number of servers down from 300 to 30."

This week, Bramfitt reports, he will meet with the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) to hear their pitch about the improved energy efficiency of optical storage technology over magnetic for long-term data retention, and he expects to see the line forming at the door as other vendors realize that a PG&E incentive check to consumers might just be a way to move more product. He says he is already entertaining vendors with increasing frequency.

Bramfitt often has to clarify that he does not "certify" vendors or vendors’ products, but his team does enough due diligence to determine whether the technology involved will contribute meaningfully to demand reduction. He says that his team is coming up with engineering calculations based on direct measurements of installed gear with the intent of identifying products that deliver as much or more value but use less power.

It would be great, he says, to have a measurement standard, "flops per watt, or something," but such standards are not forthcoming. He sits on the Green Grid, an organization tasked to develop standards, but has frequently watched discussions become very political as vendor members seek to protect their own interests and technologies.

In the meantime, Bramfitt is working behind the scenes to help establish a coalition of energy companies who are interested in the PG&E model of incentives to drive IT energy efficiency. He says that California is one of four states with a supportive regulatory foundation for incenting consumers to do the right thing. However, 95 other utility companies, he notes, have energy efficiency programs.

"They are told to do it by regulators, but they are not financially rewarded by the regulators for incentive programs." To date, 20 utilities have joined a coalition to promote knowledge of energy efficiency programs, to share organization and education techniques, and to foster the growth of direct utility action in curbing IT power consumption growth rates. For more information about the coalition, Bramfitt offers his e-mail and phone number: MJB9@pge.com and (415) 973-2933. Vendors who are interested in having their products reviewed by Cole and company are also invited to contact PG&E, but there are some important limitations.

Getting Involved

First, and foremost, PG&E can only validate vendors’ claims as part of a customer incentive application. That is, a PG&E customer needs to submit an incentive application to PG&E with a suitable energy calculation that employs the vendors’ technology. This means that PG&E needs to be involved in the project, and approval given, before the product is purchased and installed. They’re neither in the business of giving incentive checks in arrears (only on a future basis), nor are they an independent testing lab that tests any and all equipment on the market.

Second, Bramfitt wants to be clear that PG&E isn't interested in subsidizing a customer's normal technology refresh. "We are only interested in encouraging the adoption of premium technology that we have determined will result in a meaningful reduction in power consumption."

Third, Cole and Bramfitt acknowledge limitations in their ability to guarantee power cost savings. The market determines the price of energy, which has accelerated on average by 23.2 percent across the nation in the past two years. They see their incentive program as a means to reduce demand, not something that will automatically translate into power cost savings.

Fourth, the managers acknowledge that they have not evaluated, and probably cannot evaluate, the energy savings accrued to programmatic activities such as archiving. At present, the incentive program remains entirely hardware focused, with the exception of sever virtualization, which is viewed as a technique that can reduce the number of servers deployed.

Finally, it should be noted that no one from PG&E is following up, other than normal post-construction verification, that the measures have been installed by the customer (unless requested by the consumer) on customer activity after they aid them in obtaining the preferred energy efficient technologies. If server virtualization, originally conceived as a means to reduce server sprawl, actually results in more, rather than fewer, servers being deployed by the consumer, there are no penalties from PG&E. Their goal is merely to encourage the reduction in load demand by incenting organizations to deploy smarter, more energy efficient technology. What the consumer does afterward is entirely up to the consumer.

Is an incentive program the right way to drive increased greenness in storage and server operations? What is the ultimate result? No one can tell. But one certainty is that the eyes of Congressional legislators will be on PG&E as they take up the issue of carbon offsets in the next session.

Your views and feedback are welcome: jtoigo@toigopartners.com.