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CIOs, experts bristle at prospect of EPA mandates

The EPA has the green light to study energy consumption in data centers. Vendors say studies are good, but they're wary of possible government mandates. CIOs agree. The market will get them to energy efficiency faster than federal mandates.

In a bill approved last month, the U.S. House of Representatives asked the Environmental Protection Agency to study energy consumption and to promote energy efficiency in data centers. Vendors and industry experts say they're all for reducing energy consumption in data centers, but they balk at -- OK, are horrified by -- the prospect of government mandates.

"The approach that the bill is taking now is a good one -- a study -- but boy, I tell you, if you get a point where government impacts the competitive drivers in an industry -- that is not good for anybody," said John Tuccillo, marketing director at American Power Conversion Corp. (APC), a West Kingston, R.I.-based company that sells power supply and surge-protection products. In his view, mandated standards retard rather than drive innovation because they take away the market incentive. "Companies don't see a strong enough return on investment," he said.

Barry Kadets, CIO at The Gem Group Inc., a privately held bag and office accessory company based in Lawrence, Mass., said vendors are already making and will continue to make significant inroads on reducing the power and cooling requirements of their products, not because of regulation, but because it make business sense.

Kadets said power and cooling issues in the data center will only get worse and admits that the alternatives in terms of cost-effective technology is limited. He fears that innovation will be thwarted if regulations force change.

Vendors will end up meeting only the minimal requirements outlined in any regulation, as opposed to making significant improvements as a marketing angle, Kadets said. "In general, I am not in favor of governmental regulation. It seems there are always 'unintended consequences.'"

Tuccillo compares the situation with the EPA fuel economy standards for automobiles. In his view, had the market rather than the regulators dictated fuel efficiency, by now we would have hybrid and electric cars that "are so efficient they would mitigate global warming."

Data center designer Robert McFarlane was more blunt. "Congress demonstrates over and over again that when they get into technical areas, they have no understanding what it is they are legislating, and the result more often than not is a bigger or more expensive problem than they solved," said McFarlane, principal at Shen Milson & Wilke Inc. in New York.

It makes sense that Congress would train its sights on the energy-gobbling, ever-expanding data center. According to a statement from the bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., the energy tab for servers and data centers in the United States totals approximately $3.3 billion annually and is on the rise. The U.S. server market is expected to grow 75% over the next few years, from the 2.8 million units in use in 2005 to a projected 5 million units in 2009. Energy-efficient servers can save up to 80% in electricity and cooling costs, Eshoo said. What's not to study?

Indeed, the bill, HR 5646, has won praise from Sun Microsystems Inc. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., both of which have new energy-efficient products on the market, as well as other big players in the server and cooling business.

Little incentive to change

The push to innovate -- at least until very recently -- is not coming from customers, vendors agreed. While energy costs are a growing concern for companies, customers still rank energy consumption a distant third to speed and reliability of computing, says Steve Madara, vice president and general manager of environmental business at Columbus, Ohio-based Emerson Network Power, which sells Liebert Corp.'s cooling and monitoring equipment.

"If you look at data centers, their most critical priority is reliability and uptime and making sure the operation does not have any problems," Madara said.

But with soaring energy prices, a shift is coming. As data centers become larger, either through expansion or consolidation, and as heat density increases, the energy consumption for cooling these centers can rival that of a small town. The spike in fuel costs has put energy efficiency on the radar of the executive suite. "Hewlett-Packard has said publicly that they are going from 80 some data centers to less than five. So energy efficiency for them is becoming a fairly big priority," Madara said.

In general, I am not in favor of governmental regulation. It seems there are always 'unintended consequences.'

Barry Kadets, CIO, The Gem Group Inc.

But even customers asking for more energy-efficient solutions are less (indeed, rarely) motivated by a commitment to protect the environment, he added, as by cost and the specter of compliancy. Liebert has offered air-conditioning units with "green refrigerant" for several years, well before the 2010 deadline when the less environmentally friendly, but cheaper, R-22 refrigerant will be phased out for new equipment.

Customers who go with the green refrigerant "are honestly not trying to be green," Madara said. "They have a data center that has to last 10 or 20 years and know they have to be green at some point, so they go ahead and put in compliant equipment."

Barry Rimler, chief engineer of infrastructure at APC, tells a similar story about APC's eco-friendly fuel cell technology for the data center. The cells convert hydrogen ions into electricity through an electro-chemical process. There is no combustion. The fuel cells are built in blocks of 10 kilowatts and stacked. When the fuel cells are connected to an APC uninterruptible power supply, a single 10-kilowatt fuel cell can keep up to three fully loaded blade server chassis running indefinitely, as long as hydrogen is available, Rimler explained.

"I'd like to put one of these things in a car. The product is wonderful; very efficient, particularly weight efficient, and it is extremely easy to install," he said, but the market for them is minuscule, largely because of the price.

The cost of a fuel cell is four times that of traditional internal combustion engines, "keeping economics on the side of the older and far less green technology," Rimler said. That is unlikely to change, without some incentives.

"As long as diesel engines [which APC also sells] are abundant and cheap, and until regulations make it nearly impossible to install them, diesel engines will be the first of the lower-cost solutions."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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