A friend of mine has a daughter who is just about to complete her first year of teaching. One day she was talking about grading and mentioned that the lowest score that any child could get on an assignment is a 50, even if they don’t do the work at all. This prompted my friend to ask why the work-avoiding offender wouldn’t receive a zero, to which his daughter replied that according to the school rules everyone had to get points for trying—even if they didn’t. I was reminded of this something for nothing paradox when I recently read an article by Professor Ian Bitterlin entitled, The Spring Sunshine Kicks off Another Silly Season.
I’ve known Ian for many years now and we’ve shared a pint or twelve a time or two. First let me begin by saying that I’ve always found Mr. Bitterlin to be a bit of a party pooper on the day’s parade, and I mean that in the best way possible. I’ve always respected those who aren’t afraid to say, “the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes”. If you’ve read Dr. Bitterlin for any length of time, you’ll find that, in his opinion, a number of popular industry trends and beliefs are, shall we say, just a bit under clothed. In this latest “man behind the curtain” expose, Dr. Bitterlin takes on one of our favorite topics, “the efficacy of solar power”.
The catalyst for Bitterlin’s screed is MIT’s recent announcement that they were developing a micro data center site to explore the viability of solar as a power source. In beginning his assessment of this “fool’s errand”, he notes that one of the problems that the folks at MIT are trying to solve is the energy shortage that occurs when the sun doesn’t shine. While I’m sure that the scholars at one of this nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning expressed the issue in a profound way, I think the average student at your local elementary school has a similar grasp of the problem.
Having clarified the whole lack of sun issue, Dr. Bitterlin article then explores the other major solar problem: the disparity in solar PV output per square meter and the typical data center cabinet load. The people running the MIT project appear to be aware of this problem as well since they are using a solar array that is 15 times larger than the micro facility itself backed up by a utility connection and energy storage in batteries and flywheels. Naturally this begs the question as to how “micro” can a data center really be when its power source requires an area roughly the size of a parking lot? In performing some mathematical gymnastics that we won’t go into here, Dr. Bitterlin finds that the ICT load that could be supported by 100% solar power over a year (a case rendered impossible by inhibitors such as night time and clouds) is about 1.3kW/cabinet. In comparing this meager level of output to the current rack average of 6kW, the good doctor suggests that, “…the micro facility should be designed for just one or two cabinets and be nearer a closet than a room”. In other words, the efficiency of solar as a power source is probably only slightly better than a room full of gerbils running on a very big wheel.
I don’t think anyone, even Dr. Bitterlin, would argue that work on renewable power sources, including solar, shouldn’t continue in an effort to make them more viable supplements to current methods of power generation. However, as he demonstrates, they are by no means ready for “prime time”, and that there is nothing unique about data centers that should make them the primary targets for those with a green agenda. At present, some organizations that tout their latest solar powered initiatives may just be doing it for the PR and not for any actual performance benefits – the horror! In other words, while they may be getting 50’s on their assignment, the net effect of their efforts typically merits a zero.