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California and the West | THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

San Franciscans Protest as 'Server Farms' Sprout

Development: Large buildings that house Internet equipment are criticized for energy consumption, unsightliness. But others say they provide jobs.

March 26, 2001|TIM REITERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Each evening, construction worker Tony Xu parks his weathered white van in the driveway of his impeccable two-story townhouse. But something has changed since his family moved in four years ago.

Less than five feet away, the massive concrete frame of a new quarter-million-square-foot building towers over Xu's home and backyard garden.

"It's too high," said Xu, waving an arm at the 65-foot-tall structure. "The morning sun is no more."

His new neighbor is a telecommunications facility, one of more than a dozen data centers springing up in this densely developed city.

These centers, and their computer "server farms," are the heart of the Internet. When people surf the World Wide Web, they typically connect to one of these huge farms, named for the row upon row of computer servers, switches and other equipment they house.

Although they provide the infrastructure for conducting business over the Internet, their proliferation has caught even this tech-savvy town by surprise and left some San Franciscans dismayed.

Data centers have come to other technology hubs, from New York and Texas to Seattle and Los Angeles, but their arrival here has generated a convergence of highly charged urban issues and the state's energy crisis.

During a recent standing-room-only hearing at City Hall, the farms were cast in alarming terms--as huge energy consumers that would use as much power as the entire municipal government, and as potential polluters whose backup diesel generators would spew soot rivaling a fleet of buses.

But they also were lauded and defended--as a magnet for jobs in a technology sector that already employs more than 60,000, and as a relatively clean industry that provides an essential service to many important corporate citizens.

" 'Internet server farms' was not in our vocabulary 10 years ago, or even six months ago," Francesca Vietor, director of the city's Department of the Environment, said later. "And all of a sudden these interests are converging . . . talking about their concerns and hopes."

The municipal debate is resonating strongly with residents who resent the high-tech industry's ever-deeper reach into neighborhoods beyond Multimedia Gulch in the South of Market area.

Many server farms are concentrated in minority communities where residents often say government has not always served them well. High-tech gentrification is a burning concern in the heavily Latino Potrero and Mission districts. And there are deep suspicions in Bayview-Hunters Point, a predominantly African American district, about possible links between illnesses and a polluted former Navy shipyard.

The district's newly elected county supervisor, Sophie Maxwell, who called the hearing, said she believes the concentration of industry has caused elevated rates of asthma and cancer, including her 28-year-old son's lymphoma. "We have kind of been the dumping ground," Maxwell said in an interview. "I came to the conclusion we have to be very careful . . . about anything that goes on here."

The growth of data centers in the last two years has left city officials scrambling to answer elementary questions: How many already exist in San Francisco? How much power do they use?

The Planning Department says there are at least 16 operating or in the pipeline: One farm is being built in a former World War II weapons warehouse, another in a brick-turreted former National Guard armory. A data facility is up and running where the late impresario Bill Graham's Winterland Productions churned out rock paraphernalia.

It's no accident that many of the centers are in virtually bombproof structures, old or new, and that they are secured like bank vaults. Theft of trade secrets and earthquake damage are real concerns.

At the heart of the data centers are hundreds of servers--the computers on which companies host their Web pages--racked like pizza boxes in locked cages. Massive air-conditioning systems keep the computers cool--and that's where most power is consumed.

Debate Over Energy Use

Depending on who is talking, energy use by server farms is a looming disaster or a high-tech urban legend.

"The businesses are transferring [their] energy demands to the farms," said Elaine Forbes, the county Board of Supervisors' legislative analyst. "They may be importing energy demands from other regions and placing strain on [our] energy needs."

Data centers use about four times the wattage per square foot that office buildings do, and often more than manufacturing plants, city officials said. They estimated that the farms collectively would use at least 100 megawatts, or 10% of San Francisco's peak power demand. That is enough to run all municipal facilities, including the transit system.

Keith Reed, senior corporate account manager for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., said the utility has requests for hookups from about 100 server farms, the majority in Silicon Valley.

But their power use, though substantial, appears to be far less than advertised, Reed said.

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