Time for Solar Power Data Centers?

The cost effectiveness and convenience of outsourcing your data center to a hosting provider has been under attack from a lack of consumable power from utility companies. There are numerous stories about major hosting providers turning away customers because of their power requirements. Some of the largest enterprises and service providers are have resorted to building their own data centers in remote locales where utility companies can provide the necessary power.

Outsourcing to a remote location may solve the power consumption problem, but can add travel expense and make maintenance difficult if every visit to the server rack requires a screening from the TSA. The question today is: Could solar power step in and save the day?

When you outsource your data center, you generally pay for space by usable rack-unit. Yet, because of the power consumption limitations of the hosting facilities you often can’t use all of the rack-units you have rented. For example, you may rent a server rack that has 50 rack-units that could hold 50 one rack-unit servers, but these servers will often consume more power than is allocated to each rack. To solve the issue, you end up renting more racks and distributing the servers over multiple racks. Blade servers and servers that consume less power can help, but there are plenty of power-hungry pieces of equipment still in production. So, in many cases if you want to outsource to a hosting provider that is easy to get to, you are stuck with paying for more racks than you can use.

To resolve this issue, I have been speaking with entrepreneurs that are working to solve the problem using solar energy. The theory is that if you can generate enough solar energy you can sufficiently supplement the utility company power and then locate a hosting provider in locations that are desirable to enterprises, such as downtown Manhattan or San Francisco.

Dissecting this theory a bit, modern hosting providers today are being built to serve 300 watts per square foot. Assuming a 100,000 square-foot hosting facility, that is a massive power consumption of 30 megawatts. If you build a 100,000 square-foot solar energy system on the roof of the hosting facility, my friends in the solar energy business tell me that would generate a total of only 1 megawatt. Yet, a solar energy system is geared toward shaving power during peak hours only, so you may only need 10 megawatts. That is still far more power than possible using solar energy.

But, combine solar energy with some of the latest battery storage technology and you should be able to build a 10 megawatt power system – you use the 1 megawatt solar system in combination with off-peak lower-priced power to charge the 10 megawatts of battery storage. There are lots of logistical issues here, such as the actual usable area on a roof and so on, but this seems realistic in theory. I’ve been told that such a system could cost up to $10 million to build and deploy (before the government rebates and tax credits).

The approach sounds quite novel and interesting – the real question to me is if the additional expense can really alleviate the power consumption limitations in a geographically desirable location.

Allan Leinwand is a venture partner with Panorama Capital and founder of Vyatta. He was also the CTO of Digital Island.

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