Better data centers through machine learning

It’s no secret that we’re obsessed with saving energy. For over a decade we’ve been designing and building data centers that use half the energy of a typical data center, and we’re always looking for ways to reduce our energy use even further. In our pursuit of extreme efficiency, we’ve hit upon a new tool: machine learning. Today we’re releasing a white paper (PDF) on how we’re using neural networks to optimize data center operations and drive our energy use to new lows.

It all started as a 20 percent project, a Google tradition of carving out time for work that falls outside of one’s official job description. Jim Gao, an engineer on our data center team, is well-acquainted with the operational data we gather daily in the course of running our data centers. We calculate PUE, a measure of energy efficiency, every 30 seconds, and we’re constantly tracking things like total IT load (the amount of energy our servers and networking equipment are using at any time), outside air temperature (which affects how our cooling towers work) and the levels at which we set our mechanical and cooling equipment. Being a smart guy—our affectionate nickname for him is “Boy Genius”—Jim realized that we could be doing more with this data. He studied up on machine learning and started building models to predict—and improve—data center performance.
The mechanical plant at our facility in The Dalles, Ore. The data center team is constantly tracking the performance of the heat exchangers and other mechanical equipment pictured here.

What Jim designed works a lot like other examples of machine learning, like speech recognition: a computer analyzes large amounts of data to recognize patterns and “learn” from them. In a dynamic environment like a data center, it can be difficult for humans to see how all of the variables—IT load, outside air temperature, etc.—interact with each other. One thing computers are good at is seeing the underlying story in the data, so Jim took the information we gather in the course of our daily operations and ran it through a model to help make sense of complex interactions that his team—being mere mortals—may not otherwise have noticed.
A simplified version of what the models do: take a bunch of data, find the hidden interactions, then provide recommendations that optimize for energy efficiency.

After some trial and error, Jim’s models are now 99.6 percent accurate in predicting PUE. This means he can use the models to come up with new ways to squeeze more efficiency out of our operations. For example, a couple months ago we had to take some servers offline for a few days—which would normally make that data center less energy efficient. But we were able to use Jim’s models to change our cooling setup temporarily—reducing the impact of the change on our PUE for that time period. Small tweaks like this, on an ongoing basis, add up to significant savings in both energy and money.

The models can predict PUE with 99.6 percent accuracy.

By pushing the boundaries of data center operations, Jim and his team have opened up a new world of opportunities to improve data center performance and reduce energy consumption. He lays out his approach in the white paper, so other data center operators that dabble in machine learning (or who have a resident genius around who wants to figure it out) can give it a try as well.

Another windy day in Texas: a new power purchase agreement

As part of our quest to power our operations with 100% renewable energy, we’ve agreed to purchase the entire output of the 240 MW Happy Hereford wind farm outside of Amarillo, Texas. This agreement represents our fifth long-term agreement and our largest commitment yet; we’ve now contracted for more than 570 MW of wind energy, which is enough energy to power approximately 170,000 U.S. households.

The Happy Hereford wind farm, which is expected to start producing energy in late 2014, is being developed by Chermac Energy, a small, Native American-owned company based in Oklahoma. The wind farm will provide energy to the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), the regional grid that serves our Mayes County, Okla. data center.
Some (happy) cows on the future site of the wind farm. 
 The cows will still have plenty of room to graze between the turbines.

The structure of this agreement is similar to our earlier commitments in Iowa and Oklahoma. Due to the current structure of the market, we can’t consume the renewable energy produced by the wind farm directly, but the impact on our overall carbon footprint and the amount of renewable energy on the grid is the same as if we could consume it. After purchasing the renewable energy, we’ll retire the renewable energy credits (RECs) and sell the energy itself to the wholesale market. We’ll apply any additional RECs produced under this agreement to reduce our carbon footprint elsewhere.

This type of power purchase agreement represents one of several ways we’re working to make additional renewable energy available for both our data centers and the communities in which we operate. In Scandinavia, due to the region’s unified power market and grid system, we’re able to purchase wind energy in Sweden and directly consume it at our Hamina, Finland data center. We’re also working with our local utility partners to develop new options. In 2012, we signed an agreement with GRDA, our utility partner in Oklahoma, to green the energy supply to our Oklahoma data center with 48 MW of wind energy from the Canadian Hills Wind Project. Earlier this year, we began working with Duke Energy to develop a new renewable energy tariff (PDF) in North Carolina.

We take a comprehensive approach to acquiring renewable energy for our operations. We’ll continue working directly with utility providers, collaborating with industry regulators and pursuing creative agreements (PDF) like the Happy Hereford PPA.

How green is the Internet?

More than ever, people are using the Internet to shop, read, listen to music and learn. And businesses rely on Internet-based tools to operate and deliver their services efficiently. The Internet has created all kinds of new opportunities for society and the economy—but what does it mean for the environment?

We’ve been working to answer that question and enlisted the help of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) to gather more data. Their study (PDF), released today, shows that migrating all U.S. office workers to the cloud could save up to 87 percent of IT energy use—about 23 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, or enough to power the city of Los Angeles for a year. The savings are associated with shifting people in the workforce to Internet-based applications like email, word processing and customer relationship software.

These results indicate that the Internet offers huge potential for energy savings. We’re especially excited that Berkeley Lab has made its model publicly available so other researchers and experts can plug in their own assumptions and help refine and improve the results.

Of course, understanding the impact of shifting office applications to the cloud is only part of the story, which is why last week we hosted a summit called “How Green is the Internet?” to explore these questions in greater detail. At the summit, experts presented data on how the growth of Internet infrastructure, including devices like phones and tablets, can impact the environment. We also saw great excitement about the potential for entirely new Internet-enabled tools in areas like transportation, e-commerce and digital content to deliver huge energy and carbon savings. We’ve posted the videos from those sessions and invite you to take a look.

One of our goals in hosting the summit and supporting the Berkeley Lab study was to identify and encourage new research on this topic. We’ll continue to work to answer some of these questions, and we hope others will too.

Powering our Finnish data center with Swedish wind energy

What do a Swedish wind farm developer, a German insurance company and Google’s Finnish data center have in common? As of today, a lot. We’ve just inked agreements with O2 and Allianz to supply our Finnish data center with renewable energy for the next 10 years—our fourth long-term agreement to power our data centers with renewable energy worldwide, and our first in Europe.

Here’s how it works: O2, the wind farm developer, has obtained planning approval to build a new 72MW wind farm at Maevaara, in Övertorneå and Pajala municipality in northern Sweden, using highly efficient 3MW wind turbines. We’ve committed to buying the entire output of that wind farm for 10 years so that we can power our Finnish data center with renewable energy. That agreement has helped O2 to secure 100% financing for the construction of the wind farm from the investment arm of German insurance company Allianz, which will assume ownership when the wind farm becomes operational in early 2015.

This arrangement is possible thanks to Scandinavia’s integrated electricity market and grid system, Nord Pool. It enables us to buy the wind farm’s output in Sweden with Guarantee of Origin certification and consume an equivalent amount of power at our data center in Finland. We then “retire” the Guarantee of Origin certificates to show that we’ve actually used the energy.

As a carbon neutral company, our goal is to use as much renewable energy as possible—and by doing so, stimulate further production. The Maevaara wind farm not only allows us to make our already highly energy-efficient Finnish data center even more sustainable, it also meets our goal of adding new renewable energy generation capacity to the grid.

Of course, using renewable energy is good for the environment, but it also makes long term financial sense. That’s why, in addition to protecting ourselves against future increases in power prices through long-term purchasing for our operations, we also invest in new renewable energy projects that will deliver a return for our money. In recent years we’ve committed more than $1 billion to such projects in the U.S., Germany and, just last week, South Africa. We’ll continue to look for similar opportunities around the globe.

Investing in a South African solar project

As we search for investments that can help speed up the adoption of renewable energy, we’ve been looking beyond the U.S. and Europe to parts of the world where our investments can have an even greater impact. We’ve just closed our first investment in Africa: $12 million USD (103 million Rand) investment in the Jasper Power Project, a 96 megawatt solar photovoltaic plant in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Upon completion, Jasper will be one of the largest solar installations on the continent, capable of generating enough electricity to power 30,000 South African homes. The project, developed and funded by SolarReserve, Intikon Energy and the Kensani Group, is also backed by Rand Merchant Bank, the Public Investment Corporation, Development Bank of South Africa and the PEACE Humansrus Trust.

View Jasper Power Project in a larger map
The Jasper Power Project is located in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, near Postmasburg

When we consider investing in a renewable energy project, we focus on two key factors. First, we only pursue investments that we believe make financial sense. South Africa’s strong resources and supportive policies for renewable energy make it an attractive place to invest—which is why it had the highest growth in clean energy investment in the world last year. Second, we look for projects that have transformative potential—that is, projects that will bolster the growth of the renewable energy industry and move the world closer to a clean energy future. The Jasper Power Project is one of those transformative opportunities. To explain why, perhaps some background would be helpful.

Back in 2008, South Africa experienced a severe energy shortage, which resulted in blackouts throughout the country and slowed down economic growth. Since then the South African government has been actively supporting the growth of new sources of electricity to power the nation. While today South Africa is primarily dependent on fossil fuels, there’s lots of potential for renewable energy—it’s a country blessed with abundant wind and solar resources—and the government has set an ambitious goal of generating 18 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy by 2030 (as a comparison, the entire South African grid is currently 44 GW).

To meet this goal, the South African government has established the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Program (REIPPPP). Through the program, renewable energy projects compete on the basis of cost and contribution to the local economy to be awarded a contract with Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned energy utility. Jasper and the other projects being developed through the REIPPPP have the potential to transform the South African energy grid. And given South Africa’s position as an economic powerhouse in Africa, a greener grid in South Africa can set an example for the whole continent.

Once constructed, the project will use solar panels like these.

Just as compelling are the economic and social benefits that the project will bring to the local community. Jasper will create approximately 300 construction and 50 permanent jobs in a region experiencing high rates of unemployment, as well as providing rural development and education programs and setting aside a portion of total project revenues—amounting to approximately $26 million over the life of the project—for enterprise and socio-economic development. We appreciate how forward-thinking the South African government has been in designing the REIPPPP to encourage these kinds of local economic benefits.

Google has committed more than $1 billion to renewable energy investments and we continue to search for new opportunities. Our search has brought us from the U.S. to Europe and now to Africa. We’re excited to see where else it might lead.

Following the lead of nature’s engineers

It’s no surprise that Google appreciates engineers. And this Earth Day, we’re looking at some of our favorite engineers from nature to see how they can teach us to treat the environment better. We’ve created a website where we can see the beauty and ingenuity of the natural world through photos from National Geographic. We also want to provide easy ways to be greener in our own lives, so this site shows us how we can all be like those organisms by taking simple actions to care for the environment.

For instance, until recently I’d never heard of a remora. Turns out that these fish latch on to other ocean creatures such as whales and turtles to catch rides. In a way, these fish are using their own form of mass transit. To be like the remora and travel with a lighter footprint, we can plan trips using rapid transit. Or we can be inspired by bears—the true experts on “sleep mode”—to save energy in our own lives by adjusting our home thermostat and using energy efficient appliances.

Our doodle today also acknowledges the interconnections of the natural world. You can interact with elements of the environment to affect the seasons, weather and wildlife.

As another way to move from awareness to action, we’re hosting a Google+ Hangout On Air series focused on pressing environmental issues. We’ll kick it off today at 12pm ET with a Hangout on Air connecting NASA (live from Greenland), National Geographic explorers from around the world, and Underwater Earth (live from the Great Barrier reef). Throughout the week, we’ll hold daily Hangouts on Air covering topics such as clean water and animal conservation.

This Earth Day and every day, let’s take a moment to marvel at the wonder of nature and do our part to protect the natural ecosystem we all depend on. A salute to nature’s engineers!

Expanding options for companies to buy renewable energy

We’re always looking for ways to expand the use of renewable energy. To date we’ve committed more than $1 billion to renewable energy project investments, signed agreements to procure wind power near our data centers, and installed solar panels at our corporate headquarters.

It’s also important to work directly with our utility partners to find solutions that will make more renewable energy available for us and for others. The most straightforward way to do this is for utilities to offer a renewable power option for companies that request it—something that’s not currently offered by most utilities. We’ve just published a white paper (PDF) laying out our thoughts on how and why such programs might work.

We’re also announcing our first effort to put this idea into practice. We’re expanding our Lenoir, N.C. data center, and our local electricity provider, Duke Energy, has pledged to develop a new program for large companies like Google who want to buy renewable power for their operations. Duke will file the plan with their state commission within 90 days.

Our Lenoir, N.C. data center

Offering companies like Google a renewable energy option has many advantages. Because the service is made available to a wide range of customers, companies that don’t have the ability or resources to pursue alternative approaches can participate. And by tapping utilities’ strengths in power generation and delivery, it makes it easier for companies to buy renewable energy on a larger scale. Of course, the approach is not without its challenges: utilities will need to work out the mechanics of the service within their local regulatory structure, and in many cases state utility commissions will need to approve the programs. There’s also the challenge of finding cost-effective renewable projects.

We'll continue to find creative ways to supply our facilities with renewable energy, but we think this solution can provide an important new way to increase the use of renewable energy nationwide. We look forward to working with utilities, state utility commissions, companies and other stakeholders to make it a reality.

A wind investment deep in the heart of Texas

In late December, while most of us were busy wrapping presents, our Treasury team was tying a bow on our most recent renewable energy deal: an approximately $200 million equity investment in a wind farm in west Texas that generates enough energy to power more than 60,000 average U.S. homes.

Spinning Spur Wind Project is located in Oldham County, a wide open, windy section of the Texas Panhandle located about 35 miles from Amarillo. The 161 megawatt facility was built by renewable energy developer EDF Renewable Energy, a veteran in the industry that has overseen more than 50 other clean energy projects. Spinning Spur’s 70 2.3 MW Siemens turbines started spinning full time just before the end of the year, and the energy they create has been contracted to SPS, a utility that primarily serves Texas and New Mexico.

We look for projects like Spinning Spur because, in addition to creating more renewable energy and strengthening the local economy, they also make for smart investments: they offer attractive returns relative to the risks and allow us to invest in a broad range of assets. We’re also proud to be the first investor in an EDF Renewable Energy project that is not a financial institution, as we believe that corporations can be an important new source of capital for the renewable energy sector.

Spinning Spur joins 10 other renewable energy investments we’ve made since 2010, several of which hit significant milestones in the past year:

  • The Atlantic Wind Connection received permission to begin permitting, an important step in advancing the construction of the United States’ first offshore backbone electric transmission system (more in this new video).
  • Shepherds Flat, one of the world’s largest wind farms with a capacity of 845 MW, became fully operational in October.
  • The Ivanpah project, which is more than 75 percent complete and employs 2,000+ people, recently installed its 100,000th heliostat, a kind of mirror (more in this new video).
  • Just yesterday (PDF), the fourth and final phase of Recurrent Energy's 88MW solar installation in Sacramento County, Calif., reached commercial operation.

Altogether, the renewable energy projects we’ve invested in are capable of generating 2 gigawatts of power. To give a better sense of what that really means, we came up with some comparisons (click to enlarge):

Here’s to a clean, renewable 2013!

Investing in green energy in Greene County, Iowa

If you drive northwest from Des Moines, Iowa, you’ll see a lot of corn fields. From time to time, you’ll also see wind turbines rising out of those fields, making efficient use of our natural resources to produce renewable energy. It’s places like these that are home to a vibrant, emerging clean energy economy.

Today we‘re announcing that we’ve made an equity investment of $75 million in a 50MW wind farm in Rippey, a small town in Greene County, about an hour outside of Des Moines. The Rippey project, developed by RPM Access, is expected to produce enough energy to power over 15,000 Iowa homes. The project, which is now in operation, uses turbines produced by Nordex USA at their Jonesboro, Ark. facility.

Investment team members Nick Coons and Steffi Russell-Egbert visiting the Rippey project on a (windy) day in October.

We’ve taken two approaches to greening the grid in Iowa, a state where we operate a data center. Back in 2010, we entered into a long-term contract to purchase wind energy from NextEra Energy Resources’ Story County II wind farm. This time, we’re investing directly into a wind project, which has been contracted to sell all of the energy to the Central Iowa Power Cooperative, an Iowa-based utility that will deliver the energy to local consumers. We’re happy to help make more renewable energy available to Iowans and to support the growing wind energy industry in the state.

This project brings our committed investment to the renewable energy sector to more than $990 million. Read more about our previous investments on our Google Green site.

A healthy grant to support healthy buildings

Imagine having nutrition-label-like data about every product you use at your fingertips—knowing exactly what ingredients make up things like office chairs or house paint and how they could impact your health today and 30 years from now. It’s a future that goes hand in hand with our commitment to creating the healthiest work environments possible and promoting transparency within the wide world of building materials.

Today, we’re taking a step toward that future with a $3 million grant to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a leading non-profit organization that works to create greener buildings and communities in the U.S. and around the world.

There’s a lack of clear and accessible information on building ingredients, which means that a lot of us might be exposed to potentially harmful and toxic chemicals in building materials—whether it’s in the desk you sit at every day or the building’s paints, tiles and carpeting. This grant is designed to improve human health and well-being by supporting more industry research and better standards around healthy materials.

We’ve already done a lot to eliminate many of these chemicals in our offices around the world, and we want to make it easier for others to do the same. The USGBC has had great success with their widely adopted LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system for the design, construction and operation of green buildings. LEED is certifying 1.7 million square feet every day with 9.3 billion square feet participating in LEED across all 50 states and 138 countries. We think they’re in a great position to build on this track record to create real and lasting change in the industry.

But it isn't enough just to have better labeling or standards about the ingredients in various products. We also need to know more about the ingredients themselves, which is why this grant also supports more scientific research and outreach so we can all do a better job of understanding how building materials impact human health. By doing so, we hope to empower consumers and businesses alike to make more informed decisions about the materials they purchase and use in their day-to-day lives.