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Data centers could benefit from natural gas as a power source

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At data centers around the country, computers whir and hum, supporting everything from blogs to corporate payrolls to engineering schematics. They act as the backbone of growing cloud services for commerce, entertainment and even national defense support systems.

These air-conditioned computer farms, including those in Central Pennsylvania, stand to benefit by using inexpensive natural gas as a power source, particularly as the state's large supply of the fossil fuel is being tapped in the Marcellus Shale regions, tech executives said. But there are risks, other executives said.

Electricity bills are huge, between 20 and 30 percent of total costs for data centers, said Kelly Lewis, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania, also known as TechQuest PA.

If alternatives can be found to defray that cost, such as using cheaper natural gas to power data centers, then that will help expand Pennsylvania's share of a critical technology industry, he said. It's an idea that more tech companies and the gas industry are talking about, he said.

"A lot of the gas companies are proactive and have been thinking of ways to do these type of things," Lewis said.

The immediate benefit is for tech companies to use natural gas generators as their backup power supply, said Sam Coyle, president of Cumberland County-based tech services company Netrepid Inc. When your business is the computer nervous system for so many others, you really can't have the data center go down, he said.

East Pennsboro Township-based Netrepid operates a 4,000-square-foot data center. From a corporate perspective it's bigger than most, but much smaller than large tech and communication companies, he said.

"The need is still there," he said. "Being down for any length of time is unacceptable."

Netrepid runs its diesel-powered backup generators once a month to test that they're in working order and will supply more than enough power for operations over an extended period, Coyle said.

If data centers use natural gas generators, there's no need to worry about filling up the diesel tank, because they'll have a direct link to gas pipelines, he said.

"If you can have a natural gas line piped into your generator, you have an unlimited supply of fuel, which makes a disaster much more easy to manage."

Even without on-the-road taxes, diesel fuel is still about $4 a gallon. Natural gas prices are cheaper, at about $2 per 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Pipelines are being supplied with more gas from Marcellus Shale drilling, and that flood of domestic resources will increase in coming years if new pipelines are approved. In March, a group of companies, including Valley Forge-based UGI Corp., proposed the Commonwealth Pipeline, a $1 billion tube funneling gas from the north through the midstate and on to Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington,D.C.

Strategic location of data centers near gas-fired power plants could prove to be a valuable way for gas and technology companies to partner and expand Pennsylvania's economy, Lewis said.

However, not everyone sees a benefit to plugging into gas lines. Some executives see it as an overall liability, especially if it's being considered for backup power.

"In the case of a natural disaster, you don't want to be connected to another grid that has the potential to fail," said Norm Dallago, president of Dauphin County-based data center operator InfoQuest Technologies Inc.

The Swatara Township company offers various technology services, including Web and data hosting, and collocation to individuals and companies throughout the U.S.and 20 countries.

The problem with plugging into natural gas infrastructure is that a gas line rupture or other outside problem would effectively eliminate the advantage of having independent backup power for a data center, Dallago said.

In addition, he said he worries natural gas generators wouldn't come up to speed fast enough to prevent loss of power and, subsequently, loss of business. A data center has maybe 10 seconds or less to get backup power running in the event of outages, he said.

There's a significant expense to run a data center, including electricity, air conditioning to prevent the computers from overheating, backup batteries that are an operations bridge during power outages and the generators. Diesel fuel is the least of the expenses considering outages happen only about five times a year and generator testing is once a month, Dallago said.

If companies want alternative power options, it might be worth looking into heat exchangers, which would use the heat produced by the servers to provide some part of a data center's power, he said.

No matter what, the most reliable options should be used even if a data center is a small closet of servers just for your company's operations, he said.

"It's expensive to have a data center, but if you have one it's an asset," Dallago said. "You have to be willing to protect it."

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