Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A day with the California ISO

Earlier today I was able to spend time with folks at the California Independent System Operator (ISO). This organization literally operates California's power grid, ensuring that supply meets demand, and that problems get worked-around seamlessly. They also work with utilities, public policy makers and technology providers to promote solutions that permanently (as well as on-demand) reduce electrical load on the power grid.
I got a tour of their demonstration lab, which is focused on providing efficiency technology, specifically "Demand Response" (DR) for commercial and residential installation. DR is a concept that is designed to reduce end-user demand for electricity during shortages (hot summer weekday afternoons). That's when electricity is most expensive, and when brown-outs are most likely. By consistently curbing peak consumption during peak hours, the ISO (and utilities like PG&E that offer DR incentives & programs) helps reduce the need to build new generating plants that can cost millions. Consider the fact that, during the summer, power consumption roughly doubles from night-to-day. That's alot of expensive peak generation that's needed only a fraction of the time. And that's why participating in DR programs can generate cool, hard $ for end-users.

On exhibit in the lab were a number of "smart" residential & commercial technologies including programmable thermostats, appliances and building control systems that curb electrical consumption during DR events. Picture a smart building that dims perimeter lighting and reduces air conditioning when commanded; picture a home thermostat that reduces air conditioning by a few degrees when it receives a signal from its utility; picture a washer/dryer that delay their cycle until electric rates drop. All of these technologies are available today, but many are awaiting legislative approvals for utility programs that incentivize their use.

Now consider this: The "energy density" of an office building is under 10W per square foot. The energy density of a data center is over 100x of that. What would the possibilities be of bringing DR to a data center? Even a 5% reduction of a data center load could outstrip the DR savings of an entire office building. Think that this isn't possible? Between Dev/test/staging servers and failover servers, there are almost certainly 5% of servers that are "non-critical" and could be gracefully powered-down during the brief DR events.

What are the possibilities there?

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