Data Centers Lose an Advocate at Electric Utilities

Mark Bramfitt, who has been an advocate for greater cooperation between data centers and electric utility companies, will leave his job at Pacific Gas & Electric next month, he said on Thursday.

Bramfitt has been a frequent speaker at data center conferences and an active supporter of high-tech rebate programs, in which utility companies provide subsidies for organizations that use energy-saving technologies such as server virtualization and efficient cooling systems.

The program manager for PG&E's high-tech energy efficiency program, he has also been leading the Utility IT Energy Efficiency Coalition, which PG&E set up last year to help other utilities offer similar energy-saving programs. The coalition now has 45 members in the U.S. and Canada.

Bramfitt announced his plan to leave PG&E at the Data Center Energy Efficiency Summit in Sunnyvale, California. He didn't give a reason for his departure, but said it was unclear who will run the utilities coalition after he leaves.

The data center programs can be complex to set up, especially for power companies that have little experience with enterprise IT. Bramfitt has been an "evangelist" who helped other utilities adopt similar models, said Josh Wallace, key account representative for City of Palo Alto Utilities in California.

"PG&E is a test bed. If they try something and it works, we'll do it," he said.

Data centers are big consumers of energy, and the rebate programs help utility companies reduce demand on their networks and potentially avoid having to construct new power plants.

PG&E gave out $7 million in high-tech rebates in 2008, and has set aside a further $50 million through 2012. The payments range from hundreds of dollars for small projects to much larger sums. NetApp received $1.4 million last December for a data center construction project that uses fresh air cooling and other energy-saving techniques.

The utilities need more help to run the programs, however, and Bramfitt encouraged data centers to work more closely with their energy providers. "There is no other utility in the country with more than one person full-time on this," he said Thursday. "The state of the game out there with utilities is really tough."

At the same time, PG&E is expanding its rebate programs to support new products. Next year it will start providing subsidies for Energy Star servers, he said.

"We plan to subsidize the premium for Energy Star servers by writing checks for HP and Dell. They'll say how many they are selling to you, and I'll write them checks so that you will see lower prices for Energy Star servers," Bramfitt said.

PG&E will also make it easier for companies to receive money for virtualization projects. Today they have to apply in advance to receive incentive money; next year they will be able to get rebates for virtualization projects they recently completed, he said.

He also encouraged data centers to do "permanent load shifting," where they shift work from peak times, when rates are higher, to off-peak times. Some data centers might be able to run their cooling equipment through the night, for example, and store cold water or ice that can be used to cool equipment during the day.

He has also been working to get state laws revised so that data center hosting companies can meter electricity for their hosting clients. They are unable to do that today because the state considers it reselling electricity, which is illegal, he said.

"I want my [collocation] providers to send a message to their tenants about the cost of their energy, so I'm trying to make that legal," he said.

It is unclear who will pursue those efforts when Bramfitt leaves next month, however. Danny Johnson, director of engineering for collocation provider 365Main, said he will be "sorely missed."

"He provided a lot of leadership in this area," he said.

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