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High-tech hunger jolts power suppliers

By Tina Perinotto

Sydney, like most other major cities, may be struggling to keep up with the electricity demands of new technology. But it's the power needs of the giant new server farms or internet data centres, which emerged about two years ago in the US and are now scrambling for position in Sydney, that have got the energy authorities reeling.

So far this year 24 internet data companies, most listed on the Nasdaq technology index, have registered for special power requirements with EnergyAustralia, the authority responsible for the distribution grid to consumers.

Ten of these are larger players. Among them are Exodus, GlobalCentre, Global Switch, Equinox, PSI Net and PIXC (previously PIXE).

The installations are a whole new breed of property. They're windowless bunkers, stacked floor to ceiling with computer servers and other electronic equipment in industrial space of anything from 5,000sqm to 30,000sqm.

Their job is renting out computer hardware for dot coms such as Yahoo! and traditional companies as they shift ever more data and processes online - plus add any new technology tool, such as voice data, that comes along.

They cost a fortune to fit out. According to Donal O'Shea, of Vos Group, which is handling several facilities in Asia and Australia for some big United States clients, the average cost is about $10,000 a square metre.

The computer equipment alone racks up $6,000 a square metre. The balance goes on powerful air-conditioning units to cope with the big heat load from the electronics, fire suppressant and monitoring systems, plus the UPS (uninterrupted power systems) and diesel generators to ensure seamless connection in case the grid fails.

High-level 24-hour security is also part of the cocktail.

But it's their voracious power needs - and the intense competitive pressure to get projects completed - that has got the data centres' Australian consultants banging on the doors of EnergyAustralia and even calling for State government intervention.

At about 10 times the power needs of modern office space on a square metre basis, the biggest server farms will use enough electricity to power a small city, according to one consultant.

For instance, the new Exodus internet data centre, planned for a site next to the company's existing facility in the converted former Buttercup bakery site at North Ryde, will need about 40 megawatts of power.

To put this into perspective, the entire Ryde and Lane Cove area survives on a zone sub-station pumping out 100MW of power.

In the US, says O'Shea, some facilities are 100,000sqm in size and need 100MW of power.

Others are reaching 2MW a square metre, adds Don Miller, of services consultants Norman Disney & Young, considered an industry leader in the field. "The supply authorities are horrified," he says. "That sort of power is just not available off the street."

North Ryde, Sydney's answer to Silicon Valley, is already suffering power shortages; it's had two blackouts this year. EnergyAustralia has briefed the local council and produced a comprehensive power management plan that suggests ways for businesses to minimise consumption - even down to switching to gas air-conditioning.

Mascot, another new hot spot with the internet data centres (IDCs), is not well served, but will benefit from a new $180 million underground power cable from the Picnic Point sub-station scheduled for 2003 to underpin growth in load demand from the CBD.

Josh Charles, of Colliers Jardine, who negotiated a lease to PIXC on a 5,000sqm site at Mascot, says his client has been denied full power requirements in the short term since facilities planned by Optus and PSI Net have already soaked up power availability until the new cable comes through.

According to consultants Norman Disney & Young, Optus will need about 4MW for its facility - about 75 per cent of that will be for an IDC - and the PSI Net data centre will need about 6MW in its start-up period, but double or more in the long term.

Toni Mury, of consulting engineers Wilson, says he has two to three IDC clients "sweating on an answer from EnergyAustralia" and "anything from two to three megawatts is a problem, it seems". That's the sort of power needed by a medium to large office building, or a medium-size shopping centre or hospital, he explains.

A spokesman for EnergyAustralia says the authority is keen to reassure the industry, but it wants to hear about planning for any development at the earliest opportunity.

It's not that there isn't enough power: NSW is sitting on huge coal reserves. It's a question of how quickly EnergyAustralia can build the consumer grid infrastructure, such as zone sub-stations and cable connections, which draw down power from the high-voltage supply lines.

According to Joe Zhara of TransGrid, which supplies the high-voltage network, it takes about three years for any major infrastructure to get through rigorous competitive and environmental tests, plus another two years for local planning regulations and construction.

However, industry pressure has seen EnergyAustralia attempt to fast-track a new $20 million 100MW zone substation at North Ryde, next to the Exodus facility. It had been planned to come on line in 2005 but is now expected to be completed next year.

But Exodus, it seems, can't wait. It is understood to be footing the bill for a new electricity cable connection from the Meadowbank zone sub-station to supply it with power in the interim, at a cost of several million dollars.

According to electrical consultants, EnergyAustralia only became aware of the extent of the demand about six months ago.

The problem is in the timing, says Royce Engelhardt of Campbell Consulting and chairman of the Property Council of Australia's technical committee, which has been approached to help with the issues. Apart from the zone sub-stations, it can take six to 12 months just to source the electrical equipment for the data centres, such as switching gear and transformers, he says.

Toni Mury says the level of competition means his clients "want it yesterday. They don't want to wait two years to obtain the full supply they want."

Some consultants suspect that privatisation of the electricity market, which has seen prices slashed in some cases from 10" to 3" a kilowatt hour, may threaten the ability of the corporatised State-owned EnergyAustralia to invest the huge amounts needed for the infrastructure. The revelations of huge taxpayer losses stemming from Pacific Power will do nothing to ease these fears.

But EnergyAustralia firmly denies any such repercussions: "We'll meet customer demands," it says.

Sydney isn't alone in these problems. Nearly all major European cities are under strain from technology, say electrical engineers. And according to news reports, the whole of California's power grid came close to collapse last month when unusually hot weather strained the system, already under pressure from the load imposed by technology demands. Silicon Valley has regular "brownouts".

One solution, The Economist reported in a recent issue, might be the revolution occurring in the US to develop small, local "micropower" stations that use small-scale fuel cells and gas and are more environmentally friendly than traditional coal-fired power stations.

"In all fairness," says Don Miller, "no-one could have predicted the vast increase in load demand. People have been surprised at the uptake of space. It's grown beyond anyone's imagination."

-- Martin Thompson (, September 18, 2000

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