Greening snow and ice

data center cooling units

NSIDC technical services manager David Gallaher points out features of the new cooling units during the construction of NSIDC's Green Data Center. A key element of the redesign, these new evaporative units reduce cooling energy by more than 90%, compared to the traditional air conditioning units that they replaced. —Credit: Ron Weaver/National Snow and Ice Data Center

Snow and ice by definition need to stay cold, and so do scientific data about snow and ice. While computer room air conditioning is not the kind of cold that NSIDC normally specializes in, NSIDC has figured out how to keep its computers and data cool with a lower carbon footprint. The NSIDC Green Data Center, a first-of-its-kind system, has cut the energy required to cool its data center by more than 90%, and stands as a model for others to reduce energy consumption.

The impossible dream

At NSIDC, a roomful of computers and storage devices serve up its data archive containing more than 500 terabytes of data on the world's frozen regions, to researchers around the globe. Keeping these machines cool so that they can operate safely used to consume more than 300,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, enough to cool 34 average U.S. homes. "There was a certain irony that here we are working on climate research and our data center was consuming an awful lot of power," NSIDC technical services manager David Gallaher said. He had a vision of massively cutting the energy used to run the data center on a combination of advanced cooling and solar arrays. Many people told him it could not be done, but he found enthusiastic partners at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and at Colorado companies Coolerado Corporation and RMH Group. Together they designed a new data center, using energy-sipping indirect evaporative units that cool by blowing air over water. The NSIDC team was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation under its Academic Research Infrastructure Program to renovate the computing facility. The design takes advantage of Boulder, Colorado's dry climate. Evaporative cooling works best in low-humidity conditions; plus, during cool weather, the new system shuts off the cooling units, and draws in the cool outside air and filters it. The Coolerados function as chillers in the summer and humidifiers in the winter. Humidity and temperature are controlled within a few percent. The system has smart software controls to automatically swing between the evaporative coolers and outdoor air.

Powered by the sun

Soon, the dream of a solar-powered data center will be a reality. In late 2011, 720 solar panels will be mounted on NSIDC's roof. The panels will generate enough energy to cool the data center, operate the computers, charge backup batteries, and feed energy back to the grid, when the sun is shining. Since Boulder averages more than 330 days of sunshine per year, Gallaher expects the solar array to provide about 70% of the retrofitted computing facility's power needs. Gallaher and NSIDC want to share what they learned with others, in hopes of helping to reduce the energy demands and carbon emissions of data and computing centers around the U.S. According to the EPA, data centers in the U.S. consume as much energy as 5.8 million average U.S. households, which is similar to the amount of electricity used by the entire U.S transportation manufacturing industry. "The technology works, and it shows that others can do this too," Gallaher said. Gallaher and his team received the Colorado Governor's Award for High-Impact Research for the project. See the related press release. For more information and to view a near-real-time monitor of energy consumption, cooling, and energy savings, visit NSIDC's Green Data Center page.