Did New York’s Hurricane Response Change Everything?

Peter Judge

Hurricane Sandy got global warming on the agenda and highlighted data centre energy use, says Peter Judge

Hurricane Sandy may or may not have won the Presidential race for Barack Obama, but it certainly did two things for the green agenda. It got global warming into the election debate, and in New York it showed what happens when businesses face an actual energy crisis.

Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York and a natural Republican, backed Obama in the aftermath of the superstorm. “Our climate is changing,” says Bloomberg’s statement. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

New York state of mind

Peer 1 New York data centre diesel buckets and barrels

The State Governor backed him up. “I don’t call it ‘global warming’ because you trigger a whole political debate,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo. “But the frequency of extreme weather is going way up.”

This level of commentary is completely at odds with the election campaign. In a marked contrast to  the 2008 election, neither candidate mentioned global warming, except when Romney briefly made fun of Obama’s 2008 promises.

In office, Obama has failed to get a climate change bill through congress. This time round he made no promises – while Romney urged America to ravage its environment to become independent in oil.

With politicians making a link between climate change and extreme weather, there must be at least a possibility of more environmentally-friendly action by the US government this time, even though Obama does not have a majority in the House of Representatives.

Energy matters at ground level

At a more basic level, though, New York’s experience showed the importance of practical steps to conserve energy. Reducing your power demands doesn’t just cut your energy bills – it affects your ability to carry on in a disaster, and makes you less dependent on external infrastructure.

When the south of Manhattan flooded, the Con Edison electric grid was shut down. Buildings shifted to backup power, but this turned out to be of limited use in many cases. In the case of Peer 1, the building’s generators shut down because their fuel tanks were in the basement – and the pumps shorted when it filled with sea water.

Peer 1 had its own generator and a fuel tank on the 18th floor, which gave it a few extra hours. This turned out to be enough for fuel deliveries to start up again, but the company then had the problem of lifting gallons of diesel fuel up 18 floors, by hand, in a darkened building with no power for its lifts.

The hosting company pulled through, but only with a lot of physical effort. The thing to learn is that if it could run more efficiently and use less power, then its diesel back up would have lasted longer and there would have been less need to trudge up and downstairs.

At one point, Peer 1 says it turned off the cooling systems in its data centre floor, and nearby Zayo, in 111, 8th Avenue did the same. At this time of year in New York, data centres do not need electrical cooling, as the tolerance of silicon for higher temperatures has increased, and the outside air is plenty cool enough.

Various people including Microsoft have suggested that data centres could be made independent of the grid, and in the UK, we have seen one which could run entirely on methane from a bio-digester.

The combined pressure of global warming and energy prices, and a fresh awareness of the need for resilience, should make more data centres consider this sort of approach.

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