LEED for Data Centers Coming Soon?

Data centers are energy hogs, but the country’s most prominent green building standard, LEED, doesn’t adequately address their special design considerations. That looks set to change, however, as the U.S. Green Building Council, which develops LEED, is considering tailoring existing LEED rating systems to evaluate green data centers. Brendan Owens, the Green Building Council’s vice president of technical development for LEED, tells us that as part of that effort the nonprofit organization is also evaluating which tools would be best for assessing green data centers.

Owens said that he is actively working with The Green Grid and other groups that have been doing detailed technical work on establishing benchmarks for green data centers. Any provisions added to LEED regarding data centers would draw from this technical work. But he would not give a timeline, stressing that a final decision has not yet been made. “It will be decided based on our interaction with market leaders we are talking with,” Owens said. “We want to serve the best needs of the market.”

But the market is clearly calling for LEED to adopt data center provisions. “It is front and center something that has to be dealt with,” said Barry Giles, the founder of Watsonville, Calif.-based consulting firm BuildingWise and a member of the Green Building Council’s curriculum committee. The U.S. EPA estimates that data centers now account for 1.5 percent of total U.S. electricity use, a number that’s poised to more than double by 2011.

Although groups like The Green Grid (with PUE), ASHRAE, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have been developing technical criteria for energy-efficient data centers, there are no formal guidelines for constructing a green data center and verifying that it meets those standards. And while LEED rating systems currently can be used to certify data centers — or almost any other building for that matter — none of LEED’s systems takes into account the special circumstances of those dedicated to computing power. That means the criteria often are inadequate.

“If I say today that a data center is LEED certified, it doesn’t accurately reflect how energy efficient that building is,” said John Phelps, a VP of research at Gartner. LEED, for example, gives points to buildings that use natural light, encouraging architects to include a lot of windows. But data centers house mostly machines and few people, and windows would just act as an energy suck in a building that wouldn’t need much lighting in the first place.

LEED’s strength is that it takes a holistic approach to evaluating the green credentials of a building. Besides energy use, it considers materials, location, water use and indoor environmental quality. Buildings that achieve enough points under these five categories are certified. But the main issue for green data centers is around their energy use for powering and cooling the racks of computing equipment they store, Phelps said. The other criteria, such as materials, given equal weight in the ratings of conventional buildings, are relatively less important in data centers.

While any new adaptations of LEED for data centers would still maintain this broad perspective, Owens said he and others working on these issues at the Green Building Council understand that the emphasis for data centers should be different than typical commercial buildings. Any adaptations would likely be incorporated into the LEED rating systems for new construction and existing buildings, he said.

If the council does embrace data centers, expect the market to react like it has for commercial buildings. LEED-rated offices now command higher rents and resale values and are considered de rigueur for high-end markets. While data centers are still a small percentage of the overall real estate market, they are expanding quickly as businesses increasingly depend on computing. Startups such as Redwood City, Calif.-based Sentilla, which makes an energy monitoring and management system for data centers, would stand to benefit, as building owners looked for ways to make their data centers more energy efficient.


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