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Managing Energy, Improving Efficiency

September 3, 2015

The Better Buildings Challenge is an initiative by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to improve the energy efficiency of both public and private buildings by 20% over 10 years. Many buildings that are targeted by this initiative were built long before anyone gave much thought to renewable, sustainable or even affordable energy, at least not in the ways we understand today.

Last year, the Challenge was extended to include data centers. According to the DOE and the National Resource Defense Council:

By 2020 U.S. data centers are projected to consume about 140 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, an amount of energy equivalent to the output of 50 large coal-fired power plants. If all U.S. data centers were 20% more efficient, as a nation we could save more than 20 billion kWh by 2020. That translates to roughly $2 billion in cost savings.

Digital Realty has embraced the challenge, and can share that to date, we have achieved 6%2 energy savings over our baseline, towards our 20% commitment. We’re seeing additional savings in the first half of 2015 as well.

Because Digital is helping lead the way for private data center partners, we were asked to present our approach at both the 2015 Better Buildings Summit in Washington D.C. and more recently at the 2015 DOE Energy Exchange in Phoenix, AZ. The Energy Exchange conference is largely government focused, so it was an honor to be one of the few non-government presenters.

“Digital Realty is dedicated to saving energy in their data centers and working with their customers,” said Maria T. Vargas, Better Buildings Challenge Director. “As a partner in the Better Buildings Challenge, Digital Realty will share their success with others in the market, as well as educate clients about efficiency opportunities.”

The majority of attendees were energy managers and sustainability professionals, not engineers, so my presentations focused more on the process of identifying, analyzing, prioritizing and implementing improvements in data centers and less on the nuts and bolts of the improvements themselves. As Maria Vargas, told attendees, success in improving energy efficiency has as much to do with the process, and working within an organization to drive change as with technological innovation. If you can’t navigate the internal barriers to success and plan accordingly, the chances for greater efficiency are reduced.

Our single biggest barrier is the fact that almost all our customers pay their own utility bills. So from a business perspective, we are challenged to justify spending capital when Digital may not see a direct cost impact. To that end, our energy efficiency team works to help convey the business opportunity and outline the risk, so that a mutually beneficial decision can be made to implement efficiency improvements. Government agencies, too, need to see quantifiable short term improvements as well as long range benefits.

I also highlighted the need to create cultural changes that support new ways of thinking about the economics of energy efficiency. Just one or two strong advocates within an organization can drive positive changes to corporate priorities.

In my experience, positive change starts with solid methodology. To that end, I shared the energy management processes we use at Digital Realty to identify, assess and prioritize the opportunities for improvement in our properties.

Here’s our framework, which is based on the globally recognized ISO 50001 Energy Management System1:

  • Plan: Conduct the energy review and establish the baseline, key performance indicators (KPI’s), objectives, targets and action plans necessary to deliver results that will improve energy performance in accordance with the customer’s and/or organization’s objectives. Ensure key stakeholders are made aware of the plan day-1 of the process. Also define barriers and solutions as early as possible.
  • Do: Implement the energy management action plan(s).
  • Check: Monitor and measure processes and the key characteristics of operations that determine energy performance against the energy objectives, and report the results.
  • Act: Take actions to continually improve energy performance and the overall Energy Management Program.

Finally, data counts. Collect it early, collect it often. Use it to identify your problems, assess the cost of solving them and measure the dimensions of your success. Please stay tuned for a future post which will outline in more detail changes we are making as a company to do our best in the Better Building Challenge.

– John R. Dumler, P.E., C.E.M., LEED AP, Technical Operations Manager, Energy


  1. ISO 50001- Energy management standards
  2. DOE calculated value based on Utility Bill and revenue grade metering inputs into the EPA Portfolio Manager Tool. Values taken in compliance with the DOE Energy Data Tracking Manual for Data Center Partners.
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