Generally, solar power is thought as most feasible in sunny, warm-weather states. After all, the sun doesn’t do a great job of shining in the long winter months in places such as the Northeast. Why, then, put a big bet on a power source that is inconsistent?
That still is the thinking, though the technology is evolving. Solar, clearly, is wending its way ever deeper into businesses’ energy strategies.
This is leading to more aggressive use of the approach. This is illustrated by Iron Mountain, one of the world’s largest information storage and management services firms. The company said late last month that it has activated a solar array at its Freehold, N.J. facility. Freehold, which is close to New York City, is hardly a sunny spot for much of the year.
The array eventually will offset 70 percent of the energy used at the 857,194 square foot campus. It was developed by Tech Advisory Group, with which Iron Mountain has entered a 20-year fixed price power purchase agreement. The array generates almost 2 MW of electricity and will provide 2,600 MWh of electricity annually. It consists of 6,444 panels.
Ty Ondatje, Iron Mountain’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Responsibility and Chief Diversity Officer, wrote in response to emailed questions from Energy Manager Today that the financial aspects of solar are changing to make them more attractive. “The most significant trend over the past few years has been the work vendors are doing to offer ‘turnkey’ financial packages that enable easy Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) contracts,” Ondatje wrote. “Some 80 percent of commercial installations use this contract device, helping to protect the buyers from price/availability fluctuations and instability.”
At this point, Ondatje wrote, the facility only is using energy as it becomes available. Being able to save the energy for, literally, a rainy day is not currently part of the project. It’s not financially feasible now, though steps — such as the acquisition of SolarCity by Tesla — may change that in the future. “There is not a storage element at this time, but we looked hard at the options and plan to test systems with that capability in the future,” he wrote. “It’s difficult technically and because it’s not the current standard approach, there are still early adopter issues to work thought.”
In a sense, that is great news for the solar industry. If the category is making progress without storage capabilities being part of the game plan, it follows that it will hit an even higher plateau once this capability becomes standard.
Data center operators such as Iron Mountain have special requirements due to competitive pressures – it is hard to get customers if systems are not bullet proof and very reliable – and must jump through high hoops to win government business. Thus, for such a company to “trust” solar and otherwise move to enfranchise energy efficiency as a key corporate goal is a big deal — and an acknowledgement that they have to find ways to curb their high energy costs.
The company is very active. The solar project is one example. Another is the announcement in February that it has joined the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DoE) Better Building Challenge. The press release says that it is the first data center operator to commit to the “High-compliant” level of the Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA). The company committed to reducing data center energy intensity by 20 percent during a 10 year period, the press release says.
There is another benefit from solar, though one that now is off limits. Solar has great potential as a backup energy source in case of grid failure. So far, however, that promise is not being utilized, Ondatje wrote. “In North American, electric code of standard solar installations requires that the system automatically shut off in the event of a power outage – so unfortunately there are not redundancy advantages in this installation.”