PG&E Wants Less of Your Business

The California utility is working on ways to help companies use less power in their data centers

Two years ago, when Pacific Gas & Electric (PCG) launched an energy efficiency campaign and assigned Mark Bramfitt to design incentives for Northern California's high concentration of tech companies, he barely knew a semiconductor from a semi truck. So his first step was to go around introducing himself. A meeting with a salesman for Silicon Valley software company VMware blossomed into an innovative energy-saving program at PG&E that's now being held up as a model for utilities nationwide. "It has been quite a wild ride," says Bramfitt, 46, a 20-year PG&E veteran.

VMware (VMW) is the leader in producing so-called virtualization software, which allows managers of data centers to pack more programs into their computers. Without the software, each server computer typically handles only one program at a time, and only a fraction of the capacity is used. With virtualization software, many programs can be run on a computer. Thus, fewer computers, and less electricity, are needed.

Justin Hoffman, the VMware sales rep, urged Bramfitt to pay incentives to customers who reduced their energy consumption by using virtualization software, from VMWare or any other company. He was astonished when Bramfitt actually took him up on it. "How often do you find a company that will pay people to reduce their use of the product they sell?" says Hoffman.

A Slow Go, but Moving Forward

PG&E was willing because it's under pressure from regulators to slow the growth of energy consumption rather than build new power plants. Within a few months, in November, 2006, Bramfitt had announced the incentive program. PG&E pays customers for every kilowatt-hour of energy they save. It was slower to take off than he had hoped, so he's now revising it to strip out some of the red tape. Still, he has received 47 applications from data-center operators and has paid out four rebates so far.

All of this has turned Bramfitt into a spokesman for data-center energy conservation. He keynotes two to three conferences a month around the country and advises utilities on how to set up virtualization incentive programs. So far, three other utilities have begun to offer rebates. Bramfitt hopes to have a dozen on board by yearend and, ultimately, perhaps 100 companies. It's slow going, though. "I'm a crusader, but I'm not sure I have a lot of people on horses riding after me," says Bramfitt. "The utility industry isn't used to moving as fast as the tech industry does."

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