Amazon Queries Facebook And Apple’s Solar Plans

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Solar power takes too much space, says Amazon’s James Hamilton

E-commerce and web company Amazon has sparked a controversy by saying its rival’s solar power implementations are “somewhere between a bad idea and pure marketing.”

Facebook has solar panels at its Oregon site, and Apple is planning a large solar farm at its iDataCenter in North Carolina, but Amazon’s web services efficiency specialist has examined their likely contributions in a blog post and dismissed their contribution to the data centres they serve.

Environmental impact is optical

Facebook has a 100kW solar array at its Prineville Oregon data centre, but since that site uses more than 25Mw of power, the solar panels can only contribute 0.4 percent of the power. In fact, said Hamilton, 100kW is only the peak output of the array and, given its  location and lattitute, it will only produce 13.75kW.

“It might run the lights in the datacenter but it has almost no measurable possible impact on the overall energy consumed,” said Hamilton, adding that Facebook’s data center is otherwise very green.  “Facebook is one of the most efficient and environmentally-focused large datacenter operators,” he said.

“Ironically, they are in fact very good environmental stewards, but the solar array isn’t really a material contributor to what they are doing.”

Apple has gone much further in using solar power, and its impact might actually be negative, according to Hamilton. It is setting up a solar farm rated at 20MW, at its idataCenter in Maiden, North Carolina, and clearing trees from 171 acres of land to do so.

However, Hamilton estimates the iDataCenter needs around 78MW of power (Apple doesn’t publish the figures), and points out that the actual average output pf a 20MW farm in North Carolina would be 3.2MW. “I’m personally not crazy about clearing 171 acres in order to supply only 4% of the power at this facility,” said Hamilton.

According to Hamilton, a data centre owner trying to power the whole site by solar power would have to have 362 acres of solar farm for every square foot of data centre space.

“From what I have seen so far, this is not heading in the right direction,” said Hamilton. “If we had $x to invest in lowering datacenter environmental impact and the marketing department was not involved in the decision, I’m not convinced the right next step would be solar.”

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