Wednesday, December 16, 2009

As Bramfitt departs PG&E, where will the new focus for data center energy efficiency efforts be?

If you were in the audience at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Data Center Energy Efficiency Summit earlier this year, you were probably there (among other things) to hear Mark Bramfitt from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). Mark has been the key figure in the Bay Area utility’s efforts to drive improvements in how data centers are run to cut energy costs for the data center owners and to reduce their burgeoning demand for power.

But, Mark had a surprise for his audience. During his presentation, he announced he was leaving PG&E.

“The reaction from the crowd was impressive…and for good reason,” said John Sheputis, CEO of Fortune Data Centers, in a story by Matt Stansberry at SearchDataCenter. “Mark is an excellent speaker, a very well-known entity in the Valley, and among the most outspoken people I know of regarding the broader engagement opportunities between data centers and electricity providers,” Sheputis said. “No one has done more to fund efficiency programs and award high tech consumers for efficient behavior.”

Mark has stayed on with PG&E for the months since then to help with the transition. Before he moves on to his Next Big Thing at the end of 2009, I thought I’d ask him for his thoughts on a few relevant topics. In the first part of the interview that I’m posting today, Mark talks about what’s worked well and what hasn’t in PG&E's data center energy efficiency efforts, the impact of the recession on green IT projects, and how cloud computing is impacting the story.

Jay Fry, Data Center Dialog: Mark, you’ve become synonymous with PG&E’s data center efficiency work and if the reaction to the announcement that you’ll be leaving that role at the SVLG event is any indication, you’ll be missed. Can you give some perspective on how things have changed in this area during your time on the project at PG&E?

Mark Bramfitt, PG&E: First, I truly appreciate the opportunity to offer some clarity around PG&E’s continued focus on this market, as well as my own plans, as I feel I’ve done something of a disservice to both the IT and utility industry nexus by not being more forthright regarding our plans.

My team and I have treated the data center and IT energy efficiency market as a start-up within PG&E’s much larger program portfolio, and we’ve seen a great growth curve over the past four years – doubling our accomplishments in 2008 compared to 2007, for example. We’ve built an industry-leading portfolio of programs and services, and I expect PG&E will continue to see great engagement from our customers in this space.

That being said, utilities in California are under tremendous pressure to deliver energy efficiency as cost effectively as possible, so some of the industry leadership activities undertaken by PG&E may have to be de-emphasized, and we may not be able to afford to develop new programs and services if they won’t deliver savings.

My personal goal is to see 20 or more utilities follow PG&E’s lead by offering comprehensive efficiency programs for data centers and IT, and I think I can best achieve that through targeted consulting support. I’ve been supporting utilities essentially in my “spare” time, in part through the Utility IT Energy Efficiency Coalition, but there are significant challenges to address in the industry, and I think my full-time focus as a consultant will lead to broader success.

DCD: Why are you leaving PG&E, why now, and what will you be working on?

Mark Bramfitt: It may sound trite, or worse, arrogant, but I want to amplify the accomplishments we’ve made at PG&E over the past few years, using my knowledge and skills to drive better engagement between the utility and IT industries in the coming years. PG&E now has a mature program model that can be executed well in Northern California, so I’d like to spend my time on the bigger challenge of driving nationwide activities that will hopefully yield big results.

DCD: You had some big wins at some big Silicon Valley data centers: NetApp being one of those. Can you talk about what came together to make some of those possible? What should other organizations focus on to get them closer to being able to improve their data center efficiency as well?

Mark Bramfitt:
Our “big hit” projects have all been new construction engagements where PG&E provides financial incentives to help pay for the incremental costs of energy efficiency improvements – for measures like air- or water-side economizers, premium efficiency power conditioning and delivery equipment, and air flow isolation measures.

We certainly think our financial support is a big factor in making these projects work, but my project managers will tell you that the commitment of the project developer/owner is key. The design team has to want to work with the technical resource team PG&E brings to the table, and be open to spending more capital to realize expense savings down the road.

DCD: You made some comments onstage at the Gartner Data Center Conference last year, saying that “It’s been slow going.” Why do you think that’s been, and what was most disappointing to you about this effort?

Mark Bramfitt: I don’t have any real disappointments with how things of gone – we’re just very focused on being as successful as we can possibly be, and we are introspective in thinking about what we could do better.

I’d characterize it this way: we’ve designed ways to support on the order of 25 energy efficiency technologies and measures, absolutely leading the utility industry. We’ve reached out to dozens of VARs and system integrators, all of the major IT firms, every industry group and customer association, made hundreds of presentations, delivered free training and education programs, the list goes on.

What has slowed us down, I think, is that the IT industry and IT managers had essentially no experience with utility efficiency programs three years ago. It simply has taken us far longer than we anticipated to get the utility partnership message out there to the IT community.

DCD: The green IT hype was pretty impressive in late 2007 and early 2008. Then the economic crisis really hit. How has the economic downturn affected interest in energy efficiency projects? Did it get lost in the crisis? My personal take is that it certainly didn’t get as much attention as it would have otherwise. Maybe the recession caused companies to be more practical about energy efficiency topics, but I’m not sure about that. What are your thoughts?

Mark Bramfitt: I don’t see that the message has been lost, but certainly the economy has affected market activity.

PG&E is not seeing the level of new data center construction that we had in ’07 and ’08, but the collocation community tells me demand is exceeding supply by 3-to-1. They just can’t get financing to build new facilities.

On the retrofit side, we’re seeing interest in air flow management measures as the hot spot, perhaps because customers are getting the message that the returns are great, and it is an easy way to extend the life and capacity of existing facilities.

DCD: The other topic that’s taken a big share of the IT and facilities spotlight in the last year has obviously been cloud computing. How do you see the efficiency and cloud computing conversations playing together? Is the cloud discussion helping or hindering the efficiency discussion inside organizations in your opinion?

Mark Bramfitt: I’ve talked to some thought leaders on cloud computing and many seem to think that highlighting the potential energy efficiency advantages of shared services has merit. But with regard to our program delivery, the intersection has really been about how to serve collocation owners and tenants, rather than on the broader topic of migration to cloud services.

Be sure to come back for Part 2 of the interview. We'll cover a few other topics of note, including Mark’s thoughts on the philosophical differences over measurement approaches, the single biggest barrier to data center efficiency program adoption, and even a little bit of parting advice from Mark as he gets ready to leave PG&E.

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