Servers, routers, PCs and other high-tech components are voracious consumers of electricity. And as the power shortages in California have demonstrated, rolling electrical blackouts can cause problems ranging from annoying to catastrophic.
An emerging solution to this costly constraint on New Economy growth might turn out to be old-fashioned sunshine.
For the past year, Web hoster SolarHost has powered its servers and company offices with an array of photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into electricity.
SolarHost uses Siemens panels to collect solar energy, which is converted into alternating current and stored in batteries that provide juice when the sun isnt shining. The solar collectors — which take about five hours per day of peak sunlight to charge — provide about 140 percent of the energy needed to run servers and keep the lights on in SolarHosts Warrenton, Va., building, President Steven May says. The excess is transferred to the regional power grid, and SolarHost draws electricity from the grid at its other sites.
SolarHost was started by Marc Overman and his wife Carole, who sold an e-commerce software company to power up the hosting company.
Seventy-five environmental groups have moved their Web sites to SolarHost, and May says a surprisingly large number of private businesses have also signed up, motivated by the reliability of the service. Since going live in March 2000, SolarHost has been down for only 11 minutes, primarily for service upgrades.
"More and more companies are using solar power, and the California situation is accelerating that trend," says Mike Paranzino, spokesman at the Solar Energy Industries Association. "Inquiries are way up at our member companies from businesses that need a guaranteed power source."
Eventually, photovoltaics could be very attractive to high-tech and Internet companies for which power supply reliability is critical. "For certain functions, businesses and individuals have been willing to pay a premium for reliability, for not being tied to the grid and for the environmental benefits of solar energy," Paranzino says.
SolarHosts collection and conversion system cost about $40,000 to build. The company has plans for a full-fledged data center powered by sunlight, but has not announced a location for the $1.5 million to $2 million facility.
Paranzino credits the International Space Station, powered by energy collected by a vast photovoltaic array, with backing up the current burst of interest in solar energy with sound research. He says work on the station has helped to drive down costs and improve the reliability of systems here on Earth.
Older solar installations typically lasted only about 10 years. But recent generations of collection and conversion gear are expected to have operating lives of closer to 20 years.
And the cost of generating solar power is dropping quickly. The Stella Group, a solar energy economics consulting group, estimates that it costs about 18 cents per kilowatt-hour to run a California home using electricity drawn from the regional grid, and about 18 cents per kilowatt-hour using photovoltaic power.
But thats not typical. "A typical [photovoltaic] system thats attached to the grid will provide power for about 25 cents a kilowatt-hour," says Randy Udall, director at the Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Aspen, Colo. "Thats about three times the national retail average."