EPA Asks Whether Energy Star Ratings Would Work For Data Centers

About 240 data centers will provide the EPA with power consumption information over the next year with the aim of creating possible Energy Star specifications for energy-efficient data centers.
The Environmental Protection Agency has launched an initiative to collect monthly energy-consumption data from about 240 data centers over the next year with the aim of creating possible Energy Star specifications for energy-efficient data centers.

As part of the new "Energy Star commercial building data center collection initiative," the facilities are providing to the EPA monthly information about "how much power is going in to the data center, how much is being used, and submetering," including how much energy is consumed by all non-IT "infrastructure" gear, including air conditioning, uninterruptible power supplies, and lighting, versus the power being used by IT equipment such as servers, storage, network products, and "other ancillary products," Andrew Fanara, the EPA's Energy Star program product development team leader, said in an interview with InformationWeek.

The data centers began collecting information about their facilities' power use in mid-July, and they will provide the EPA with their first monthly reports in August. The effort will continue for about a year. In the meantime, the EPA will host quarterly Webinars with the group to discuss analysis, trends, and other findings from the data, said Fanara.

For example, the agency will analyze how some data centers -- without identifying the facilities -- might be consuming more or less power through "waste heat," he said. The more heat that's created by underutilized servers and other computing equipment in data center, the more cooling is required. And that means more energy consumption.

" 'You can't manage what you can't measure,' is the old adage," said Fanara. The Energy Star initiative is "all about benchmarking" energy efficiency, he said. The goal over the next 12 months or so is to evaluate whether creating Energy Star specifications for energy-efficient data centers is viable, he said. "We could decide that Energy Star is not appropriate to data centers."

The EPA about a decade ago began making available Energy Star specifications for other types of commercial buildings, including hospitals, supermarkets, and schools, said Fanara. But with data centers being among the nation's largest power hogs and research showing that their energy consumption has doubled from 2001 to 2006, the time has come for the EPA to mull whether Energy Star specifications for data center facilities make sense, too.

"We needed to get this data, with the possible end result being, can we do Energy Star for data centers?" Fanara said.

The data centers that volunteered to be part of the study represent "a good diversity of industries, geography, and tiers from one to four," meaning data centers with infrastructure designs providing varying levels of fault-tolerance, redundancy, uptime, and business continuity, he said.

The 240 or so data centers are based mostly in the United States, although a small number of facilities outside the country, including about seven in Canada, are participating in the initiative to provide additional perspective.

While a number of government data centers are participating in the new initiative, most of the data centers are private-sector facilities, including some hosting companies that provide data center services to a number of external customers.

“At this stage, I would rather focus the Energy Star ratings on the equipment in the data center and leave the building aspect to the LEED certification process," Monsanto CIO Mark Showers told InformationWeek in an e-mail. "Although there certainly are many data centers under construction, it pales in comparison to the amount of new computer equipment each year. Having established standards for comparing energy use of equipment would be a major step forward.”

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification is a distinction for energy-efficient buildings from the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization promoting environmentally friendly building design and construction. So far, only a handful of U.S. data centers have attained LEED certification -- most of the hundreds of facilities to attain LEED certification so far in the United States are office buildings and schools.

Monsanto recently opened a data center that the company estimates saves 30% on energy as compared with regular data centers. The data center was one of the first in the country to be LEED certified.

While the EPA launches this new data center study, work continues to develop by year's end on Energy Star specifications for data center servers, said Fanara. Last summer, for the first time in a decade, the EPA raised the bar in its Energy Star energy-efficiency standards for PCs.

Finally, in the fourth quarter, the EPA will begin preliminary work related to developing possible Energy Star specs for storage and network products used in data centers, he said.

Additional reporting by J. Nicholas Hoover