Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Google 'green energy czar' promotes ways to cut consumption

On its way to a 2011 goal of cutting in half the energy consumed by computers, the Climate Savers Computing Initiative (CSCI), co-founded by Google with U-M as a key founding member, has made some striking discoveries.

“Just simple behavior changes reduce energy consumption by 5-15 percent,” Bill Weihl, Google’s “green energy czar,” told more than 200 students, staff and faculty in a talk Tuesday in the Dana Building.

Easy ways to cut energy use include shutting down computers when they aren’t in use, and using power strips that also can be shut off, the former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor said in his Energy Fest keynote address titled “Inventing a Clean Energy Future at Google.”

Weihl outlined ways that businesses, governments, universities, and other institutions and individuals can help, and detailed some results obtained by Google and CSCI researchers.

Weihl also praised U-M for helping to lead the Power Down for the Planet challenge last spring in which eco-conscious campus communities joined together in a movement to reduce the energy consumption of computers.

Students, staff and faculty at participating universities joined the challenge by pledging their support to adopt green computing practices — and by creating videos to share the CSCI story with others — to save $459,926.

Weihl’s talk came on the first day of Energy Fest. The three-day event continues from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. today at the Chemistry Building, and Thursday on North Campus, with presentations devoted to energy conservation.

Weihl said a wider-ranging goal being studied by his Google team is an efficient electricity-generation source that rivals popular low-cost methods such as coal. The RE<C (renewable electricity cheaper than coal) initiative seeks to meet that goal in five to seven years.

“Half the world gets electricity from coal. We’ve got to find some way to deal with coal, but it’s got to make economic sense,” he said.

He said answers might be found in solar-thermal heat production, which involves using heat from the sun or underground sources to drive turbines that produce power.

Weihl also discussed wind energy and said turbines placed at altitudes of 5,000-10,000 meters could be more efficient because the wind always is blowing at higher altitudes. The trick is making it cost-effective to place those turbines.

“We need a lot more people in universities thinking of clever ways to build these systems. The fundamental issue is cost,” he said.

Weihl said some energy cost savings have been shown to stem from measuring a family or individual’s energy consumption, then showing that information in a graph to reveal sources of energy consumption that can be reduced or eliminated.

Weihl said Google is piloting such a program for residential energy consumers that could be available to the general public in a few months.

He said in Google’s own search for savings in its data systems operations, an important step was questioning assumptions. While computer data centers typically have an AC-to-DC-and-back-to-AC conversion system to avoid power surges, Weihl said Google developed a battery-per-server power conditioning system to avoid this procedure and save energy.

“The key is a couple of smart engineers can pay for themselves many times over,” he said.