Green Technology and Renewable Energy are Keys to San Jose Conservation Plan

California city uses virtualization and more efficient cooling to cut data center power consumption.

by / March 13, 2008

Green initiatives driven by local governments are popping up all over the United States, but San Jose, Calif., might be taking the movement further than any other city. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed recently announced a 15-year, "Green Vision" plan to power nearly the entire city with renewable and efficient energy technologies.

Conserving energy is just one goal of the initiative. Reed sees it as a way to spur job creation, said Michelle McGurk, public information officer of the San Jose mayor's office. As demand for green IT expands, a growing number of experts view energy- efficient technologies as a potential source of numerous, high-paying jobs.

San Jose's work force is poised to make the city's lofty green goal a reality, said Collin O'Mara, clean technology policy strategist for the city.

"We have a lot of IT companies looking to get involved in the energy monitoring business. We also have many architectural firms that are now becoming green building experts," O'Mara said. "We're seeing it over and over again - companies are really trying to become innovative and drive the products that we're going to need to become more sustainable."

 
Power Source
To power the entire city with renewable energy, San Jose will attempt to reduce energy consumption by 50 percent. California already has mandated that all of its public utilities must generate 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2010 - but that requirement might climb to 33 percent by 2020, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

San Jose's eventual target is a 100-percent renewable energy benchmark. The city's hopes for meeting this aggressive goal rest on the market's ability to deliver new innovations during the next few years. San Jose's work force is ideally suited to deliver the necessary technology, O'Mara said.   

"We have one of the most talented work forces in the country. We have access to venture capital dollars. We have a growing consumer base that is more advanced than other parts of the country; demand more green products. Combine that with the high-tech research institutions in the area, like the University of California, Berkeley; San Jose State University; and University of California, Santa Cruz," O'Mara said, adding that promising technologies were already emerging in San Jose.

"We're seeing a real renaissance in onsite solar-power generation. It's not just the traditional photovoltaic cells," he continued. "We're seeing a lot of great innovation in solar thermal technology, where they concentrate the power of the sun to generate electricity. We're also seeing an amazing innovation with thin film. Instead of the bulkier voltaic cells, it's a more malleable purchase, so you can put it on curved areas."

The city plans to be a big part of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's initiative encouraging citizens to install 1 million solar roofs by 2018. The initiative aims to allow homeowners who install solar panels to sell back the excess energy they produce to their local public utilities. Customers using Pacific Gas and Electric, Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power can participate in the program.

"Our overall goal is to have 100,000 of Gov. Schwarzenegger's 1 million solar roofs installed here in San Jose," McGurk said.

However, an obstacle is blocking the city from that goal. California Public Utilities Commission regulations block San Jose citizens from selling power to their local public utilities. Policy analysts in Mayor Reed's office are exploring ways to change those regulations, said McGurk.

More than 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in San Jose come from lighting, according to O'Mara. Many local governments are switching traffic lights to light-emitting diode (LED) technology, which use between 82 percent and 93 percent less energy than traditional incandescent lights, according to the Lighting Design Lab, a project of the nonprofit Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. LED

lights, depending on the model, can last for years, while incandescent lights last for months. San Jose already has LED traffic lights, but wants to go a step further, powering each with a solar harvesting device.

Overall, the city expects to invest in a diverse combination of emerging renewable technologies to make the 100-percent goal possible.

"We'll do some things with fuel cell technology and the electric chemical technology that's coming out," O'Mara said. "There are a lot of opportunities with water throughout the coastal area. We're not saying that 100 percent of it has to be derived onsite in the city, but the power that we're buying will come from renewable sources."


Tapping Landfills
San Jose already has one of the highest recycling rates in the country: Sixty-two percent of its garbage is recycled. The city plans to ramp up those efforts with a campaign encouraging residents to purchase easily recyclable products. San Jose plans to convert to energy, anything that is remaining in the city landfills, helping it reach another green goal - converting 100 percent of San Jose landfill waste to energy.

"The idea is to make it a continuous string where we're diverting and recycling as much as possible. The little bit that's left on the biosolid side, we're converting to energy. That's what we're talking about when we say 'waste-to-energy.' We're not talking about incinerators. The problem with those is they create power, but they pollute," O'Mara said.

 
Green IT
Most government data centers consume huge amounts of power. Many local governments pursuing green initiatives include data center overhauls, which consolidate servers and deploy more efficient cooling systems.

San Jose was ahead of the game on green IT. In 2005, San Jose built a new city hall building and relocated several departments to it. Before the move, those departments occupied several buildings, each with its own data center. Sharing one data center enabled those agencies to slash power consumption. The facility also uses a cooling system that sucks in the cold air from outdoors at night to naturally cool the equipment.

"By mixing [cooler] outside air with the chilled water, we're able to reduce the amount of water we need to chill," said Vijay Sammeta, division manager for IT in San Jose. The city also is working to further reduce data center power consumption with server virtualization technology. This allows the work of up to 10 normal servers to be done on one by transforming hardware into software.

The city recently switched to more energy-efficient desktops and laptops. It also mandated that all the city's electronic IT hardware must be approved by the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). The EPEAT is a set of energy- efficiency criteria created by the nonprofit Zero Waste Alliance through a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Many vendors view it as the strictest standard to meet for green products. 

 "We've seen about 40 [percent] to 50 percent less energy use coming out of those [new computers] than the ones we were buying five to six months ago," Sammetta said. "We are now redoing our desktop contract to incorporate green requirements and calculating energy savings as part of the total cost of ownership."

He said he hoped the city would implement a five-year replacement cycle for that equipment as part of its green agenda. That would enable the city's IT to keep up-to-date with energy-efficient hardware, making the city greener. But Sammeta said persuading city leaders to fund that replacement cycle has been difficult because San Jose is struggling with a tight budget right now.

"The opportunity is right because manufacturing from different vendors, especially the big players, has really gotten on board," he said. "It means investing in those technologies, getting on a PC replacement cycle on a four- or five-year cycle, as opposed to 10 years."

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.