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Net Complex A Dilemma For San Jose

SERVER FARM: Plant would tax grid David Lazarus, Chronicle Staff Writer

Thursday, March 22, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose, while trying to block construction of a new power plant, is set to approve a vast computer complex that could overwhelm California's already strained power grid.

City officials gave preliminary approval last week to what would be the world's largest "server farm." The sprawling facility to handle Internet traffic would drain about 150 megawatts of power from the state electricity grid.

If granted final authorization on April 3, the $1.2 billion project would add the equivalent of about 150,000 homes to California's power system, which was hit this week by rolling blackouts as demand for juice outstripped available supply.

The server-farm issue highlights a vexing dilemma for the state.

On the one hand, Gov. Gray Davis is calling for widespread conservation to help California overcome its current troubles. On the other, no one wants to curtail growth of the high-tech industry, which is an engine for economic vitality.

"San Jose will make a lot of money from this project," said Craig Breon, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. "But to not help the state out of its energy situation, there's a fair amount of hypocrisy going on."

The server farm would be owned by U.S. DataPort, a San Jose data-management firm. As planned, it would occupy 10 buildings on more than 170 acres in the city's Alviso area.

Total projected energy use would be 180 megawatts. About 30 megawatts would be generated by a small on-site facility, and the rest would have to be provided by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

"We're confident that the DataPort project will be approved because it's very important to San Jose and to the local economy," said San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales.

But PG&E already is saying that its power cupboard is bare. The utility "does not have sufficient existing electric infrastructure" to meet U.S. DataPort's needs, it said in a recent letter to San Jose officials.

John Mogannam, U.S. DataPort's senior vice president of operations, countered that it could take as long as five years for the server farm to grow big enough to require the full 150 megawatts from the state grid.

"Hopefully, by then the whole energy crisis will pass by, and we won't have a problem," he said.

Mogannam stressed the positive aspects of the project, such as its ability to handle about 15 percent of global Internet traffic, the 700 jobs it would create, and the $70 million over 10 years it would generate for San Jose in property and utility taxes.

"That's why the city likes it," he said.

Indeed, San Jose officials are so enamored with such developments that they have all but turned a deaf ear to warnings that the server farm will exacerbate California's already dire power shortage.

Andrew Crabtree, the city's senior planner, said the planning commission had barely touched the question of energy supply when it approved the server farm last week.

"It wasn't incumbent on the commission to solve the state's energy-supply problems," he said.

Rather, San Jose city planners focused on the environmental ramifications of the proposed facility, including air pollution from diesel generators and the impact on nearby wildlife.

How it would affect dozens of burrowing owls in the area was a key topic of discussion.

"We all recognized that there's a power shortage," Crabtree said. "But we couldn't do anything about that with this project."

Except to make things tougher, of course.

Server farms run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are an aspect of the high-tech boom that was never foreseen by energy experts, and which are now a major contributor to California's surging electricity demand.

A server farm essentially is a large building filled with computers. Each computer handles the Web site or Internet traffic for hundreds of corporate clients that do not have the technical resources to look after such things in- house.

Most server farms consume between 10 and 60 megawatts of power. At 180 megawatts, the U.S. DataPort facility is billed as the most extensive data center on the planet.

"There won't be another this size anywhere in the world," said Mogannam, the company's senior vice president. "This will be the biggest."

With such a vast scale, however, comes additional concerns. For example, all that hardware will generate huge amounts of heat, requiring powerful air conditioners running around the clock to keep things cool.

Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the Independent System Operator, which oversees California's electricity network, said server farms had "a big impact" on the state's tight energy supply.

"We have an economy that's increasingly based on delivery of information," he observed. "We certainly need to make sure we're building adequate generation and transmission to get it there."

As it stands, no major power plants have been built in California for the past 12 years, while dozens of server farms have sprung up throughout the state.

The Yankee Group, a Boston consulting firm, estimates that the amount of space taken up by server farms nationwide rose to 9 million square feet from 1999 to 2000.

By 2003, it expects that figure to increase to 25 million square feet, or enough room for more than a hundred 10-story office buildings.

San Francisco may be the exception. Supervisor Sophie Maxwell proposed interim zoning controls last week that would require server farms to receive special permission from City Hall to operate.

San Jose, for its part, has no such reservations. It does, however, draw the line at big, fat power plants in the backyard of the city's leading corporate citizen.

Gonzales is spearheading opposition to a proposed 600-megawatt generating facility in Coyote Valley because of its proximity to a residential area at the site of a planned Cisco Systems office complex.

"There's plenty of opportunities to generate power in the city," he said. "This project is just in the wrong site."

The matter is now in the hands of the California Energy Commission, which is expected to issue a ruling by May.

Cisco, critics say, twisted the mayor's arm to fight the plant because it did not want a generating facility in its neighborhood. The area will be home to thousands of well-heeled tech workers.

"It's politics," said Breon at the Audubon Society. "City officials are making political decisions rather than good planning decisions."

Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a grassroots organization, is calling for a moratorium on construction of all new server farms in the South Bay until sufficient power can be found to keep them running.

"Until they figure out how to build these things without draining the electricity grid even dryer it is, they shouldn't build them," he said.

"The Internet industry is creating unintended consequences that will really screw up our future," Smith added. "They are so busy focusing on next quarter's profits that they don't stop and think about the consequences." .

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- . SOME FAST FACTS ABOUT 'SERVER FARMS' . -- What are they? "Server farms" are facilities dedicated exclusively to housing powerful computers for Internet use.

-- Who uses them? Companies and individuals pay server farms to maintain their Web sites, handle Net traffic and store vast amounts of data -- functions that otherwise would require extensive hardware and technical support.

-- Why do they use them? As Internet use explodes, server farms play an increasingly vital role in managing data and keeping information moving.

-- What's the problem? Server farms drain considerable amounts of electricity to keep running.

E-mail David Lazarus at

-- Martin Thompson (, March 22, 2001

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