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Data centers, power distribution companies and construction firms all try to conserve energy
Following a greener path

This article appears in the issue July/August 2011, [Vol 20, Issue 7]
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Knowledge management is a key element of energy conservation for data centers, power distribution firms and other companies trying to find ways to become greener.

Bay Area Internet Solutions offers co-location, managed services, "hosted" solutions and other data center services from its 83,000-square-foot facility, enabling other firms to share data center hardware rather than purchase the equipment  themselves. At first glance, it seems like the servers and racks of equipment would be the primary cost of operating such a facility. But the power consumption demands of increasingly robust equipment, combined with rising energy costs, have made energy the single highest operating cost.

"Our challenge when we built our new data center was overall energy efficiency," says Tom Wye, CEO of Bay Area Internet Solutions. Many of the company's customers have large energy needs because the processing power of today's equipment has grown much faster than its efficiency factor.

Bay Area's previous data center didn't have automated power monitoring. Any time the company wanted to check excess power usage, an electrician with a handheld meter physically tested the suspect unit, which was labor-intensive. An automated monitoring system would enable rapid notification about power spikes and other issues, enabling Bay Area's engineers to fix problems more quickly.

In addition to power-saving design and energy efficient equipment, Wye chose the Liebert SiteScan monitoring solution from Emerson Electric. Wye had used several Liebert products during his 14 years working in data centers. Liebert SiteScan monitors utility feeds into the building, power supply feeds and data from cooling units. It interfaces with the Bay Area Internet Solutions' building management system to enable the firm to run all power and cooling equipment at optimal speeds to save energy and to keep operating costs down.

Wye says the combination of Liebert SiteScan, the building management system and other conservation efforts have enabled the site to operate at a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.35, compared to a 2.2 for the old data center. PUE measures the amount of power coming into a facility compared to the amount actually used. A "perfect" PUE would be 1.0.

Controlling peak demand

Power distribution companies, firms that buy power from an electricity company, are using knowledge management resources to keep down their costs, which leads to lower costs for their customers.

The Northeast Nebraska Public Power District (NNPPD) buys electricity from the local utility, Nebraska Public Power District, and delivers it to 14 towns in the northeast portion of the state. The utility determines the rates it charges based on a variety of factors including costs, actual usage, regulatory limits and peak load demands. The utility uses peak load demands of "red days" as a base to establish rates for the following year. Of those factors, NNPPD has the most control over actual usage and peak loads.

The peak loads occur during the three-month irrigation season as local farmers water their crops. NNPPD initially attempted to control peak usage by assigning rotating days to customers for irrigation. It also offered its lowest rates beginning at 11 p.m. That method worked for a while, but customers eventually pushed the system, starting to operate their irrigation equipment at 10:30 p.m., figuring it was "close enough," according to Scott Abraham, NNPPD systems manager. "They set a peak load at a time they shouldn't have been running at all," he says.

Giving customers a choice

Other power distribution companies and utilities have attempted to control peak load usage through equipment that reduces or shuts off power at certain times of the day or during certain weather conditions, such as hot, humid days in the Midwest. NNPPD didn't want to go that route.

"With that type of system, the customer never has a choice if he's going to be on or off," Abraham says. "It's always better to provide people with information so they can make the decision themselves, rather than to say, ‘I'm going to control you.'"

But in order to provide information about reducing power during peak usage times, NNPPD had to ensure that customers received the communiqués. So in 2007, NNPPD incorporated posted Web information, e-mail notifications and radio advertising, but that still left a hole for how to connect with the customer in the field.

"You have to make sure that they get the message," Abraham explains. "There was always a possibility that they wouldn't get it." So in 2008, NNPPD started looking at text communications to fill in the gap. Though there were several potential solutions, many are unreliable, resulting in rejected messages or in slow message delivery.

Texting messages

"We could not afford to have messages blocked or delayed because that would have defeated the purpose of the program," Abraham says. "Emergency grade" text messaging solutions offered reliable messaging, but at an extremely high cost. So Abraham investigated "near emergency grade" text messaging, which is nearly as reliable as emergency grade, but at only about one-quarter of the cost.

Another factor in keeping the price low was selecting a service that would enable the company to share short text messaging codes with other customers of the messaging provider, rather than pay a higher cost for an exclusive code.

A meeting with TextPower made the choice of a near-emergency text messaging provider an easy one, according to Abraham. Mark Nielsen, TextPower chairman and co-CEO, answered questions directly. If he didn't know the answer immediately, he researched the information and called Abraham back.

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