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Power Earth

More Data Centers Using On-Site Solar Power 88

Posted by timothy
from the be-my-little-sunshine dept.
1sockchuck writes "Solar power hasn't been widely used in data centers because it takes a very large installation of photovoltaic solar panels to generate the levels of energy required by these facilities. But the month of April has seen the debut of four new data centers featuring on-site solar arrays."
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More Data Centers Using On-Site Solar Power

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  • Solar power is a perfect match for data centers. Their power demand is basically constant and they already have large batteries on site. So the main drawback of solar power isn't a problem for them (mostly).

    • by Stellian (673475)

      Solar power is a perfect match for data centers. Their power demand is basically constant

      Especially if you built it on an asteroid with no clouds and with a side always facing the Sun. Cause you don't need those coal and nuclear plants generating base load, and those huge dams regulating peak load, like on Earth.

    • by daem0n1x (748565) on Monday May 02, 2011 @07:02AM (#35998358)

      This must only be bullshit. Everybody knows solar power is a pipe dream and will never be viable. Data centres should be burning good ole coal and oil, or even tires.

      This solar power silliness reminds me of those crazy dudes in the past wasting all taxpayers' money to invent flying machines. Or cures for infections. Or transmitting images over the air in "invisible" waves. All pipe dreams.

      • Don't even get me started on the space program. What a waste of taxpayer dollars! In less than 50 years after we wasted billions to put a man on the moon, the much superior PRIVATE sector has already put a person into low earth orbit and promised us a rocket that will be delivered any day now that will be better than the ones we built in the 60's! And people wonder why everyone thinks the government is so inefficient and useless.
  • Makes sense to me (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Monday May 02, 2011 @02:57AM (#35997208)

    While I don't think it would be feasible to run a data center only on solar, it could help with a big thing: cooling. The hotter it is outside, the harder those A/Cs have to work and the more energy they use. Well, conveniently the hotter it is outside the more direct sun the solar panels tend to get so the more power they generate. Kinda of an automatic offset. When the power demand is the most, the panels give you the most.

    You'd still need line power to run the data center, particularly at night, but you could help offset your costs in a big way.

    • Re:Makes sense to me (Score:4, Informative)

      by TheLink (130905) on Monday May 02, 2011 @03:42AM (#35997422) Journal

      It's actually starting to make more sense.

      Previously it had to be subsidized and was more of a way for offsetting your costs to taxpayers, than to the Sun ;).

      But from what I see the prices are dropping: http://sunelec.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=5 [sunelec.com]

      Currently average retail electricity costs are about USD0.09 per kWh (grabbed from DOE). So: ( 1.60 per watt ) / ( 0.09 per kWh) = 2 years.

      The sun doesn't shine brightly all the time and there are installation costs etc, so the payback time is about a multiple of that say 8-10 years?

      • by Stellian (673475)

        The sun doesn't shine brightly all the time and there are installation costs etc, so the payback time is about a multiple of that say 8-10 years?

        I assume they are rated at direct incident light of 1000W/m^2; they have about 13% efficiency, and cost about 200$/m^2.
        In United States you have quite a bit of sun [solarpanel...dpower.com], about 5KW/day/m^2. So you get 0.65KWh per day, on average, for every square meter of installation. You earn about 21$/year/m^2.

        It takes 10 years pay it back ignoring the present money value. At more economically realistic 5% interest rate, the payback time is about 20 years, on par with the panel's life time. So much for "free energy". Without i

        • That over the next 20 years, there will be no advances in technology leading to better efficiency and lower cost.
          Every tech when starts getting adopted is expensive. For example, could anyone afford a computer at home in 1960s?

          As technology advances, and costs come down, solar will become more and more viable. So to dismiss a tech just because currently its not economically viable is basically foolhardy.

          • by bberens (965711)
            I have no doubt that within 20 years solar power will become more efficient. Dropping $30k on a solar system today doesn't mean I get those future improvements for free.
          • by Stellian (673475)

            Well, if you buy the hardware today, you are locked-out from future advances, and you need to recover that sunken cost. Sure, someday we might harness the energy of flying pigs, and at that point we can have a chat on the economic viability of pigovoltaics. It's in no way foolhardy to pass on investing in something that's a money looser now and might never become viable, especially when we are running pretty close to a fundamental physical limit [cam.ac.uk] of pig buoyancy.

        • by EETech1 (1179269)

          One thing that you might find yourself doing is balancing your demand with your generation capabilities. When I go camping, I have a panel that will give me 1 amp @ 15VDC when in full sun, and I can go for weeks charging 2 deep-cycle batteries, and running all kinds of electronics, but I have efficient lighting, and do my best not to waste power, and the result is I can run my inflatable boat for a few hours a day for free.

          I have a second identical panel, and after years of experimenting with my power distr

      • Previously it had to be subsidized and was more of a way for offsetting your costs to taxpayers, than to the Sun ;).

        It still is. Depending on where you live, the tax credits for solar range from fair to impressively large.

    • Offset energy usage (Score:5, Interesting)

      by thegarbz (1787294) on Monday May 02, 2011 @03:53AM (#35997466)

      This hits the nail on the head. Solar PV to offset during the day and grid power at night. I'm sick of Greenies pretending that Solar is the panacea of all things power related, and sick of the short sighted people saying it has no place in power and that's the end of story.

      This is where we should be heading. More solar power in plants with a large HVAC requirement. So during the day when it's hot you can offset the cooling energy required, and the result is reducing the grid power which is attainable, rather than replacing base load generation with some magical fairy green power station... which is not!

      • Also really helps with distribution which is an issue these days. It is a problem to upgrade the power gird and there are always distribution losses. A good way to mitigate that is more local generation, in particular in response to peak loads. If peak cooling and other loads are handled with local solar, that makes for a much more even load on the grid.

        It also compliments many generation technologies well. You find that many kinds of electrical generation are 100% or 0%. There isn't really any "Scale it ba

        • by Stellian (673475)

          Also really helps with distribution which is an issue these days. It is a problem to upgrade the power gird and there are always distribution losses. A good way to mitigate that is more local generation, in particular in response to peak loads. If peak cooling and other loads are handled with local solar, that makes for a much more even load on the grid.

          Sorry, but that makes no sense. Solar is in no way a supplier of peak power. It's output spikes widely (10:1) in a cloudy day. So you need to get that power from somewhere else, and have the infrastructure in place to get it.
          What solar provides is intermittent power with a low $ value on a liberalised energy market. In order to meet the base-load demands of a data center you need to couple it with expensive hydro or pumped-storage installations, which are constrained to specific geographic locations. So ren

      • by Jenming (37265)

        its not that the magical fairy green power stations don't work, its just that fairy mortality rate is still too high and theres no long term plan to store their little radioactive corpses.

    • by dbIII (701233)
      Just as you can use solar heat to give you hot water you can also buy industrial sized units that use solar heat to drive the refridgeration cycle. They are serious and large bits of gear with mini cooling towers for condensation but they do exist.
    • by Firethorn (177587)

      it could help with a big thing: cooling.

      One idea I've seen is to switch to the cheaper solar-thermal panels, w/reflectors. Then you don't use a standard AC unit, you use an adsorption chiller. Electricity usage is restricted to a few pumps that are there more for controllability and efficiency.

      To be efficient the water needs to be at least 180F/80C, but that's easily doable with evacuated tube collectors.

  • It's not necessary for solar to cover the entire power needs of a data center. It'd be nice if it did, but any power generated is money saved on their electric bill (and less drain on the general grid). And as stated above- they already have lots of batteries to cover (if) any surplus generated, and a fairly constant demand.

    • Glad someone else was thinking what I was thinking (and said it better than I would have said it). Mitigating costs by using solar is never a bad idea, especially for operations such as these which do draw so much power.

  • by c0lo (1497653) on Monday May 02, 2011 @03:09AM (#35997280)
    TFA cites 4 examples, none of which reached the level of self-sufficiency. So, while a step in the good direction, the data centers haven't yet reached "to generate the levels of energy required by these facilities" (as TFS suggest).

    Anyway, one can only hope the trend will continue, even if only for two very selfish reasons:
    a. the more mainstream the PV are, the lower the price on all the market (10 years to ROI for a decent PV home installation is still too expensive to my taste).
    b. the more pressure on energy consumption to run a data center, the higher chances computer (part) manufacturers to research techs with lower energy requirements.

    I reckon both of them would be good (medium/long term) for my pocket as well.

    • by DrVomact (726065) on Monday May 02, 2011 @05:17AM (#35997866) Journal

      TFA cites 4 examples, none of which reached the level of self-sufficiency. So, while a step in the good direction, the data centers haven't yet reached "to generate the levels of energy required by these facilities" (as TFS suggest).

      Anyway, one can only hope the trend will continue, even if only for two very selfish reasons: a. the more mainstream the PV are, the lower the price on all the market (10 years to ROI for a decent PV home installation is still too expensive to my taste). b. the more pressure on energy consumption to run a data center, the higher chances computer (part) manufacturers to research techs with lower energy requirements.

      I reckon both of them would be good (medium/long term) for my pocket as well.

      But why do you want to buy photovoltaic (PV) panels in the first place? Do you think it's just intrinsically good for some reason? Suppose we cover every available architectural surface in our cities and towns with solar panels. Does this have any non-obvious downsides?

      1. You talk about amortizing the cost of the solar panels to you. But what about the environmental impact of manufacturing the panels? Does it create pollutants? What are the consequences of exploiting the raw materials to make the panels? Does mining them cause pollution? What are the costs of rectifying these effects?
      2. Presumably, it takes energy to mine the raw materials and to make the panels. Where does this energy come from? Again, this is not usually considered in calculating the amortization costs of the panels. If oil was burned to do any of this, aren't you adding to your "carbon footprint" by buying so many panels?
      3. These panels have a finite lifespan (I believe it's about a decade). What is the environmental impact of disposing of them? Can the components be recycled? What are the energy requirements of doing this? And again, how does it add to your "carbon footprint" to expend the energy to handle the dead panels?

      People are happier if they don't think about this, so I don't suppose many will. They will just buy PV panels and feel all warm about themselves...or make governments and corporations do it, to have more of those warm fuzzy feelings floating around.

      Not that it matters, but I just bought a PV panel because I'm going to be spending a few months in an isolated area, and need a little electricity to power my personal gadgets. But then the only alternative would be a petro-powered generator, and I'm not putting up with the noise or smell. I might even stick a few panels on my house; not because it's intrinsically good, but as a backup for those times when the grid fails.

      • by c0lo (1497653)
        Now, all the above/below are good questions indeed! I'm serous when saying it. Even if you won't reply with some extra information (I'll appreciate if you will), I'll look for it myself.
        Without invalidating the legitimacy of the questions, I'll try to give you another perspective on possible reasons for "going solar", please see if they don't make a valid PoV.

        But why do you want to buy photovoltaic (PV) panels in the first place? Do you think it's just intrinsically good for some reason?

        Yes, the very intrinsic and personal (egotistical) reason: potentially independence from the power grid for me as a person - one less thing I need to

        • by Stellian (673475)

          (did I mention some egotistical motives? Yes, I did)

          Even in a purely purely egotistical approach, it should be clear that the PV cell's price is heavily subsided by the cheaply available fossil fuel, which is used intensively in mining and manufacturing. There's no way to "go solar" without a large electric storage, which will degrade much more quickly than 25 years. A technology which is borderline profitable now will become prohibitively expensive assuming a high oil price.

          • by c0lo (1497653)

            (did I mention some egotistical motives? Yes, I did)

            Even in a purely purely egotistical approach, it should be clear that the PV cell's price is heavily subsided by the cheaply available fossil fuel, which is used intensively in mining and manufacturing. There's no way to "go solar" without a large electric storage, which will degrade much more quickly than 25 years. A technology which is borderline profitable now will become prohibitively expensive assuming a high oil price.

            I'm mildly objecting to the "subsidized" term (assuming that's what you actually wanted to say): it is not that PV cells are favored more than, say, any smart phone or, actually, anything else that uses energy/minerals in the fabrication process (including cement - I'll come to it later). Otherwise, you are right: the PV prices will be affected by the current prices of energy, hard to predict if the PV prices will go down (entering "mainstream" economics) or up (because the price of energy going up).

            Now, a

      • by swb (14022)

        I ask those same questions about hybrid cars. The electric motors, batteries and more extensive electronics for regulating and controlling all of it takes real energy to mine and manufacture; rare earths likely used in the motors are not just intensive to mine but produce a ton of pollution to process.

        I've even read that cars like Priuses with small tires consume more tires over their lifespan, further increasing their pollution in the vehicle's lifecycle.

    • by timeOday (582209)

      TFA cites 4 examples, none of which reached the level of self-sufficiency

      Data centers would be among the last places to ever be 100% local solar, for several reasons:

      • They use a massive amount of electricity in a small area
      • They are 24 hour operations
      • They require high availability (i.e., even the regular electric is not reliable enough without backups)

      None of this is really a knock on solar, data centers just happen to be one of the more demanding consumers of electricity out there. But blunting thei

  • Does anyone have any idea how much energy these panels will be saving simply by using the sunlight for something other than heating the building? I realize you could accomplish much the same thing with a simple awning, but it seems like it should still be part of the calculation.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Here's the skinny -

    PV Costs about $5 per watt, installed (and that's cheap. It's usually much more). Never mind the cost of the silicon technology, the majority of that cost is in brackets, adhesives, other hardware, wires, labor... Costs which are fully mature and not going to go down. So, assume an average upper middle-class house in south Texas that uses roughly 100 kWh per day (Central A/C in a large-ish house is a bitch!) and forget about batteries. So a 10 kW system is going to cost us $50,000 (10,

    • by vivian (156520)

      100kwh/day? that's a huge amount of power to be using! Even in Dallas, the city with the highest average, the average residential power usage is 44 kWh/day per customer. Nationally in the US, it's lower, about 30kWh per day.

      At that rate of power usage, and with the low cost of subsidized electricity where you live, Solar will not be a viable option for you for quite some time, if ever. $0.12/KWh is about half what it costs here in Australia - and we sell a hell of a lot of coal, so I can only assume that t

    • Honestly, if you have $50K to invest in lowering your carbon footprint, there are more effective ways to do it. Move closer to work. Buy a bus pass, a nice bike, and some bad weather gear. Solar hot water heater. Energy efficient appliances and lighting.

      I like solar, I really do. But too many people talk about it like it's the be-all and end-all of green living. Energy efficiency is a much better return on investment right now.

      Once you've made all those investments, you'll need a much smaller solar ar

  • by hawguy (1600213) on Monday May 02, 2011 @10:49AM (#36000264)

    Does anyone see this as anything other that a PR stunt? Facebook's datacenter uses 30MW of electricity -- a 100KW solar panel array will produce 0.1% of their power - not even a drop in the bucket. (note that it's not 0.3% since the solar panels don't provide power all day).

    If they were really interested in reducing their carbon footprint with solar, they'd be investing in one of the large-scale power plants being built in the desert where they can buy more KW per dollar. it doesn't matter whether they reduce carbon in Arizona or in Oregon, it's all the same to the environment.

    And if they were *really* interested in reducing their carbon footprint, they'd use a small nuclear reactor [hyperionpo...ration.com] to generate 100% of their power on-site. Which would make a *real* difference in their carbon footprint rather than a meaningless symbolic gesture.

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