The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) provides solar lights to poor villages in developing countries. The trouble with solar is that it doesn’t work at night. (D’oh!). Off-grid solar is impractical for most first world houses because it takes expensive batteries to run 100-watt light bulbs and big TVs. When the competition is a dim and smoky kerosene lamp, small/cheap batteries work just fine. The payback is surprisingly fast; villagers already pay $5-10 a month for kerosene. The unexpected result is that solar power today is economically feasible for poor rural villages, but not for first world homes. Just as some developing countries have gone straight to cell phones, skipping landlines, rural villages may skip the power-grid and go straight to solar.
I must be a capitalist at heart: I love that people often want to do the right thing, but I believe that large-scale change is much more likely when supported by good economics. SELF’s approach is so powerful because using solar instead of oil feels like the right thing, but they have improved the odds of success by focusing where there is a positive return on investment (ROI). Once they show the way, their approach should become a virtuous circle, spreading rapidly without more charity. SELF gets the ball rolling, gets a local industry going, and then moves on to the next country.
I believe that a similar dynamic will drive power savings in corporate data centers. In theory, corporations may want to do the right thing by running green data centers, but it’ll be the economic benefits that drive large-scale change. This has been such a hot topic lately that the EPA – under direction from congress – is about to release a report on data center energy efficiency. In drafting the report, the EPA was interested in hearing what NetApp did to save power in our Sunnyvale data center.
Last year we did a major project to improve data center power efficiency. We increased storage capacity and performance, while achieving these results:
- 80% reduction in power (329kW to 69kW)
- 80% reduction in rack space (25 racks to 5.5 racks)
- 60% improvement in storage utilization (under 40% to about 60%)
- $1 million direct savings from reduced energy cost and PG&E rebates
- $1.5 million additional savings expected over 18 months
How? The short answer is that we upgraded to newer more efficient hardware, and we used advanced features in Data ONTAP 7G to improve storage utilization. (For more details, see this case study, this report, and this blog.)
This was an easy project for us to justify, because it had sales and PR benefits. We were showing our customers how NetApp equipment, properly deployed, can save power. But never mind the sales benefits, the savings alone justify the project. I haven’t even mentioned savings from not having to expand our data center. We were approaching full capacity, but now we’ve got space/power/cooling to spare.
One of my frustrations with capitalism is that – on average – corporations seem much less interested in doing what’s right than individuals. (Perhaps spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations somehow inhibit moral behavior. Topic for another blog.) But in this case, I’m confident that the right thing will happen anyway, because the economic benefits are so strong. When projects are green in the wallet sense, as well as the environmental sense, they are much more likely to get funded.