Environmentalists Dispute VMWare’s “Green” Hydroelectric Claims


The virtualisation specialist claims its latest data centre is “the gold standard” for green design powered as it is solely by hydroelectric energy but environmental groups claim electricity generated from damming rivers is not sustainable or particularly green

Virtualisation software maker VMWare has said it will save $5m a year with its new data centre in Washington State which will take advantage of local hydroelectric power but some environmental groups claim dams used to create the energy are not sustainable and can negatively impact the local environment and wildlife.

The data centre is located in East Wenatchee, Washington State. The virtualisation software maker claims that by making use of hydroelectric power generated from dams in the area it will save around $4m a year on energy costs and a further $1m a year on “local consolidation costs”.

“Hydroelectric power, which is green and more sustainable than other energy resources, is the sole source of power for VMware’s datacenter, which is expected to save the company approximately 50 percent in power rates alone,” the company said in a statement.

However, according to reports in the Chicago Tribune in July, one dam in the area, the Rocky Reach dam on the Columbia River, has been criticised for affecting stocks of local fish and has been forced to alter its operation to allow water and fish through its systems. “…the dam in recent years hasn’t produced as much power as it might: Its massive turbines act as deadly blender blades to young salmon, and engineers often have had to let the river flow over the spillway to halt the slaughter, wasting the water’s energy potential,” the article states.

VMWare was contacted to clarfiy whether it was using electricity generated from the Rocky Reach Dam but did not reply in time for this article.

US environmental group International Rivers opposes the construction of new dams and the use of hydroelectric power generally and said that VMWare’s views on hydropower were not accurate. “We would say that VMWare is very poorly informed about the impacts of hydropower,” said Patrick McCully, executive director of International Rivers. “Hydro can not be generalised as “green” given the great harm it causes to river, floodplain and estuary ecosystems, as well as to the many people who depend upon rivers.”

Specifically, International Rivers said that in the Pacific Northwest region where VMWare had located its new centre, hydro power have hit salmon populations. “The destruction of salmon runs has caused great harm to the regions’ Native Americans for whom the salmon is a key source of sustenance as well as a keystone of their culture,” said McCully.

The group also claims that studies reveal that rotting organic matter in dam reservoirs produce greenhouse gases. In some cases, especially in the tropics, reservoirs can produce more greenhouse gases than even the dirtiest fossil fuel power plants.

But despite the environmental concerns about hydroelectric power, VMWare maintains that its Washington data centre is extremely energy efficient and achieves a Power Utilisation Rate (PUE) of between 1.2 and 1.5 which is below the industry standard of 2 to 2.4. The facility uses outside air for cooling which VMWare says should result in 70 percent savings in power and equipment.

“By leveraging outside air, VMware is able to significantly lower its use of commercial grade air conditioning and create a power cost offset. As a result, the company expects to reduce its air conditioning utilisation by 50 to 75 percent over time. In addition, the free, outside air allows VMware to use less power to cool its computer equipment, resulting in an additional 20 to 30 percent gain in energy savings,” the company said in a statement.

VMWare says it is also using “containment techniques” to further improve efficiency of facilities cooling system and save around $500,00 per year. “To reduce on-going operating costs, VMware chose to adopt containment methodology to make its datacenter more efficient. Rather than operate a mixed air environment, VMware elected to isolate the cool air from the hot, and use rooftop air conditioning units—where the hot air is returned and the heat then siphoned off to warm the office area—to reuse typically wasted, server-generated heat. This hot aisle containment strategy greatly improves the efficiency of VMware’s air handling equipment, further driving down power requirements,” the company said. “By eliminating the need for a compressor in favor of a fan on most days, the company also avoids wasting hydroelectric power.”

VMware chief information officer Mark Egan said that the company decided to practice what it preaches with its latest data centre. “VMware was running out of datacenter capacity to support the rapid expansion of our research and development facilities. So, we decided to practice what we preach, and create the gold standard for a green, energy efficient datacenter that combines sustainable hydroelectric power with virtualisation and other best practices,” said Egan. “By utilising a non-proprietary datacenter design, the facility is one that virtually any enterprise or government agency can build.”

Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have also built data centres in Washtington and Oregon to take advantage of cheap hydroelectric power.

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