Skip to main content

Practical Magic

What Yahoo's energy efficiency strategy borrows from farms

The company is investing in renewable energy under the direction of sustainability chief Christina Page, but Yahoo's biggest impact comes from new data center design innovation.

Silicon Valley tech giant Yahoo has been relatively low-key about its sustainable operations strategy since CEO Marissa Mayer took over in July 2012.

But a lack of noise shouldn't be conflated with a lack of progress.

Early this month, Yahoo opened a massive data center that uses an innovative “Compute Coop” design — a building layout that reduces the amount of power necessary to cool off the servers housed within. As you might imagine from the name, it looks like a traditional chicken coop, with side openings and a vented roof ridge.

Just as significant: last fall, the Internet company disclosed its first big power purchase agreement (PPA) for wind-generated electricity (PDF), echoing a series of similar long-term sourcing arrangements announced by other big cloud services companies, most notably Google and Apple

The 15-year-long contract will offset much of Yahoo’s energy consumption for its operations in the Great Plains region.

“We've been quiet, but we've been busy,” Chris Page, global director, energy and sustainability strategy, told GreenBiz during a recent interview. “Our focus really is on our data centers or technology and energy, electricity. That's what's material, and that's where I think we have the opportunity to show some leadership in data center mystery around efficiency and renewables."

Page added that the company has focused heavily on decoupling the growth of its various business lines and the company's global environmental impact.

"In the 2.5 years since Marissa got here, we've grown to a billion users worldwide," she said. "At the same time, our carbon footprint has actually decreased.”

Wading into wind and renewables

Technically speaking, Yahoo doesn’t have a stated renewable energy target (against a specific date). Executives have stated in the past that the company would like to source about half its annual electric needs from on-site generation.

That strategy is “a work in progress, something that fits in with our goal of reducing the carbon intensity of our data centers,” Page said.

The wind deal with OwnEnergy required engagement from several teams including the tax team, the legal team and ultimately marketing communications. OwnEnergy uses a relatively unusual model for its project: It manages 25 community-supported wind farms across the United States.

“We’re looking for things that can drive the development of new renewable energy and also make a good business case,” Page said. “Something that provides us with good value, can act as a safeguard against future increases in electricity costs.”

At its LEED Gold-certified headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., Yahoo has invested in on-site clean generation projects including a 1-megawatt Bloom Energy fuel cell (PDF) and solar power. The Bloom technology provides roughly one-third the power needed at the facility, according to a case study published by the vendor.

While the value of these investments has yet to be realized, Yahoo’s innovations in data center energy efficiency promise to be “a real home run,” Page said.

Doubling down on design

The aforementioned chicken coop-inspired design introduced back in 2010 — part of a $500 million construction project in upstate New York — uses a unique roof shape to accelerate the benefits of free cooling from the outside air.

In Lockport, N.Y., Yahoo benefitted from a $9.9 million U.S. Department of Energy grant along with local tax incentives. The site uses dramatically less water and less power than typical data centers. Natural air flows throughout the buildings almost all the time, meaning that far less energy must be used to keep the computer servers, storage drives and networking equipment from overheating.

Its power-use effectiveness (PUE) is very close to 1.0; that ratio expresses the total amount of power used by the facility divided by the amount needed to run the equipment. The lower the number, the better.

For design inspiration, Page’s team looked to its local surroundings.

“One of the things that the guy who originally designed the chicken coop noticed when he walked around downtown Buffalo [near the site] was that the buildings — and there are many historic ones there from back in the manufacturing age — were angled in different ways,” Page said. “They weren’t straight to the streets they were on. ... He realized that this predated mechanical cooling, and they were building the buildings to take advantage of the light angles and prevailing winds in ways we don’t think about anymore.”

Likewise, Page and her team are looking to biomimicry for ideas about how to keep data centers cool in much hotter, dryer climates.

“We’re looking at things like termite mounds and asking, ‘How do the termites mix air in extreme cases, in temperatures in the middle of the desert without any mechanical cooling?’" she said. "We’ve decided to contemplate biomimicry and really have fun playing around with ideas that can lead to some really cutting-edge breakthroughs.”

More on this topic