Power Plugs

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PG&E helps its customers cut costs in their data centers. But the utility also practices what it preaches, through virtualization software and a review of its energy policies.

Power Plugs

PG&E is also working with IBM on data center cooling initiatives. IBM is doing thermal analysis in all the company's data centers.

The process typically pinpoints hot spots and offers recommendations to alleviate the problem. Once the information is captured, Argenal says, "We know what we can do to basically ensure that we get a coefficient that lowers our cost in terms of being more efficient cooling-wise."

In PG&E's case, IBM discovered why the utility was experiencing power usage peaks in the morning as the result of high temperatures in its data centers. The reason: PG&E shut off its chillers from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. "During this period, the equipment was still running and created an enormous amount of heat. As a result, when the chillers [went] back on, it took longer to cool the environment," Argenal explains. "IBM said we weren't being efficient."

The solution was to run the chillers 24/7, thereby eliminating the power peaks. Argenal notes, however, that he was initially only able to adapt this 24/7 approach at the Fairfield facility, where he is in charge. The other two data centers are run by PG&E's building management group. "I sat down with them last week and asked if they would run the chillers around the clock, and they agreed," he explains.

The fact that the information-technology department would have to clear a data center policy through building management, though, underscores one of the potential problems in greening the computer center. In the past, these facilities have been almost entirely under building management or facilities management teams.

As a result, information-technology departments often weren't concerned about energy efficiencies and rising energy costs in the data center, and the issue, according to Bramfitt, didn't get proper attention. That's changing, though, as I.T. begins to take co-responsibility for managing I.T. power efficiencies. "The absolute first step in addressing these issues is for the I.T. guys and the facilities management guys to talk, as was the case with Jose and our building management group," Bramfitt says.

Granted, the return on investment that energy conservation generates can be significant, especially for companies building new data centers, but money wasn't the overriding issue for PG&E. "These can range all over the map," Bramfitt says. "Customers who are planning brand-new data centers can effect changes in design and specification of equipment and get really great paybacks in energy savings in short order. With a data center that's being retrofitted, it takes a bit longer because you're replacing equipment. Even so, a one- to-two-year payback and a 10%, 20% or 30% ROI is achievable."

Saving money is likewise not Argenal's primary goal.

"The cost of power in the data center is a secondary issue for me," he concludes. "My overriding concern is, how do I keep my environment at the optimal level to allow for maximum reliability of equipment? This is equipment I need to be able to continue with all the operations and development, and yet be able to fit everything in the same floor space we have today, the same footprint."


1 Market, Spear Tower,
Suite 2400, San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: (415) 267-7070
URL: www.pge.com
Business: Generates, procures, and transmits electricity and natural gas.
CEO: Thomas B. King
Technology chief: Patricia M. Lawicki, vice president and CIO
Financials (for 9 months ended Sept. 6, 2006): $9.33 billion in revenue; $839 million in profit.
Challenge: Create energy efficiencies in its data centers to drive down costs and energy use, and serve as a model for customers.

This article was originally published on 2007-02-20
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