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Intel burns a lot of energy trying to keep its computers running

Mark Larson Staff Writer On Wednesday, Intel Corp.'s Folsom campus was hit by its first blackout of the year -- a two-hour power outage caused not by the energy crisis, but by a downed tree on a windy morning.

It was good practice.

The company has been warned by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District that it should expect rolling blackouts will hit the area between 25 and 40 times this summer.

Since then, Intel has been carefully planning and rehearsing what it will do with the massive, global computer networks that are coordinated at its Folsom site when blackouts shut the place down for of 60 to 90 minutes at a time. The plant's No. 1 priority -- "front and center" as spokesman Bill Mueller puts it -- is to develop detailed contingency plans that will keep critical functions up and running during a rolling blackout.

Meanwhile, it's lobbying SMUD to try to develop an early warning system for the plant, which employs 7,000 people and pumps an estimated $300 million a year into the local economy. And Intel's managers aren't the least bit happy that they're spending so much time preparing for blackouts instead of developing and marketing products.

It's just around the corner: The outage at 9 a.m. Wednesday hit without warning, and diesel generators immediately kicked in. When the power came back up two hours later, said spokesman Bill Mueller, all systems were go.

Intel expects to be running its blackout drill a lot in coming weeks.

"We believe the incidence of rolling blackouts will steadily rise over the next couple of weeks," Mueller said. "May and June are particularly going to be bad months. In July, August and September increased generating capacity is predicted, so rolling blackouts may be less."

The blackout prediction was given to Intel by SMUD assistant general manager John DiStasio. But spokeswoman Daci Udris warned that predicting blackouts is inexact science. "There are so many variables," she said. But Intel isn't taking any chances.

Laptops for everyone: The company started bracing in December by voluntarily turning off half of its lights during peak power use times. A month later, when power supplies were getting increasingly tight and the first blackouts hit the state, that turned into a 24-hour a day edict at the campus.

Half the lights in the parking lot went out at night, and employees were reminded to turn off lights and computer monitors at the end of their work day.

Now, the campus has a goal of reducing its annual power usage by 10 percent. That's a tall order, because it is above and beyond power conservation measures that were already in place. The campus has already taken 18 power conservation steps, and is considering refining them with another 12 steps to make its 10 percent goal.

All employees are being moved into laptop computers, which use one-seventh the energy of desktop PCs.

The company changed its thermostats this week. Office temperatures went up two degrees to 76 degrees. Next winter it will be two degrees cooler at 72 degrees.

The huge chillers -- essentially giant swamp coolers -- on top of Intel's buildings, which are used in tandem with air conditioners, are being modified to use less power.

Split-second timing: The Folsom campus houses Intel's global data centers. The company can't afford them to be shut down by a blackout. So it has its phalanx of diesel generators that will fire up within 20-seconds of a power outage.

If the back-up systems don't work, the downed networks take several hours to normalize after the power comes back on.

Early warnings from SMUD of a blackout are "critical," Mueller said. "We have very expensive networks and very expensive tools that don't take kindly to unannounced power interruptions."

A network crash could mean a lot of lost data. Employees have been schooled to save data "repeatedly and often," now that it's blackout season.

SMUD spokeswoman Udris said the utility posts on its website the neighborhoods next in line for rolling blackouts. They happen when the California Independent System Operator -- also located in Folsom -- determines there isn't enough power to keep the state's grid from collapsing without power outages.

When a power emergency is declared by the ISO, SMUD and other utilities ask their largest users to power down. If that doesn't save enough power, the blackouts begin. In SMUD territory, they tend to follow a clockwise direction through the grid.

But SMUD itself gets only "minutes" of warning of when a rolling blackout is coming and can't notify all those affected.

The only buildings exempted from the rolling blackouts are hospitals, water sanitation districts and Sacramento International Airport.

SMUD is starting a pilot program, however, using pagers as a quick warning system to companies like Intel who need to know as soon as possible that they'll need to crank up their back-up generators.

To the war room: To be ready, the plant in March gathered all managers from its four major business groups and those of its 10 or more subset groups. Together they mapped out their most critical tasks and checked off what days they are scheduled to be carried out.

For each day, they formulated a contingency plan for getting vital functions done in the event of a blackout.

"We established specific areas supported by backup generators," Mueller said. These "mini war rooms" are where Intel employees will go from any part of the campus to plug in and do their tasks using backup power during a blackout.

Managers have been cleared to make personnel decisions on their crews. If a blackout hits at 2 p.m. or later, they can keep them working, or send them home if they figure there won't be much time for work once the power goes back on.

Silicon Valley grumbles: Intel's Santa Clara headquarters, where silicon chip fabrication is performed, doesn't have the same power problems as the Intel campus. Its power is supplied by Silicon Valley Power, which like SMUD is a municipal utility district. There, Intel is part of an agreement with 19 other big power users who have agreed to power down when asked by the utility. In return, they are exempted from rolling blackouts.

While Intel in Folsom would like the same arrangement here, it isn't logistically possible because of the way SMUD's grid works, according to Mueller. So it remains in the rolling blackout mix despite its power conservation efforts. If a blackout comes its way, it will hit the entire campus, not just part of it.

As a corporation, Intel has joined other companies lobbying for more power generation statewide.

"We are very capable of doing these functions in Oregon, New Mexico and Texas, as well as California," he warned. "California's challenges are having a direct effect on our business operations."

-- Martin Thompson (, May 07, 2001

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