Data Centers for Utilities

Data centers appear in many utility service territories across the country and operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, typically at very high energy intensities. In square footage, data centers consume up to 50 times the electricity of standard office space.1 According to a 2013 industry survey, the average power draw of a server rack (the pantry-sized structures that house servers) is 7 kW with some rack densities surpassing 20 kW per rack.

According to a 2019 report, an energy-efficient data center can use up to 80% less power than an inefficient one and 88% less environmental impact, which makes data centers an important target for energy efficiency programs. Unfortunately, only 12% of data centers are considered green. Significant energy savings opportunities are available through a variety of measures, including improved cooling, power delivery and conditioning, and air flow management, as well as more efficient IT equipment, and leveraging power management in that equipment. Many, if not all hyperscale data centers have incorporated these features into their set-ups. Many small and medium sized datacenters have not, due to additional barriers to improving efficiency.

Barriers to Data Center Efficiency

In general, barriers to an efficient datacenter become larger as the data center space becomes smaller, as resources and expertise to address energy efficiency are less available. However, these barriers are key to unlocking these additional savings. A few of these barriers are:

  • Staff Time – IT staff in many installations are dedicated to uptime and security and have little time to learn about energy-efficient technologies or evaluate long-term benefits and costs.
  • Insufficient Metering – Many smaller data centers lack sufficient energy metering capability to determine a baseline and track their efficiency improvements, especially in embedded data centers where the HVAC load can be mixed with non-data center commercial space.  The Department of Energy has provided a metering guide, which can be helpful to small and medium sized data center operators.
  • Risk Aversion – A smooth running data center is essential to business operations, and many IT managers are averse to taking risks. A 2016 study found that data center downtime costs companies $9,000 per minute. IT managers may manage risk by building in extra redundancy, which drives down utilization, overcooling the data center, and resisting new technology solutions that improve efficiency.
  • Split Incentives - Financial barriers related to the “first cost” of efficient products and services are often exacerbated by the split incentives created when the decision-maker responsible for authorizing an energy efficiency project does not receive direct benefits from the project. In data centers, the most common split incentive is between the IT manager and the facility manager who manage different budgets that overlap with the data center system. Generally, in organizations with this dynamic, the IT manager seeks to stretch the capital budget as far as possible, by either buying less efficient, lower cost IT equipment, not running the server in an efficient manner, or continuing to run inefficient, legacy hardware to support established workloads. This eventually leads to a shortfall in cooling system or power delivery capacity, which must be rectified by the facility manager. The facility manager must then overcome this capacity shortfall with limited capital funding as well as absorb the ongoing increases in operational costs.2
  • Energy Efficiency Not a Priority

Ultimately, the unfortunate reality is that energy efficiency is not a priority for many of the stakeholders in these organizations. Further complicating things is that many small and medium sized data centers have different motivations for not making an energy efficient choice. Given these complicated dynamics, ENERGY STAR is continuing to work to provide resources that can target different stakeholders within this stakeholder group and tailor educational materials that will speak to the individuals involved and provide your data center programs talking points and other materials that can help drive participation. These include:

  1. 5 Ways to Save – Introduction to energy saving in the data center for the least sophisticated data center operators.
  2. 16 Additional Ways to Save  – Additional ideas on how to save energy for data center operators that have already completed the initial list.
  3. Ask the Expert – ENERGY STAR has put together a series of articles that tackle different specific issues within the data center. These focus on technologies and innovation in the data center space and relate to both the products themselves as well as broader areas of energy savings.
  4. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Data Center Metering Guide (PDF, 1.5 MB)
  5. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Data Center Air Management Tool

1 Based on data center energy use information submitted to the ENERGY STAR Buildings program in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's measurement and tracking tool, ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager.

2 A former PG&E program manager illustrates the long-standing disconnect between IT and facilities departments with an anecdote: a facility manager’s swipe card was not programmed to let him enter the data center. Cadmus. Personal communication with Mark Bramfitt of Bramfitt Consulting, Winter 2012.