Biomass-Powered Data Centers: Next Step for Green IT?

by | Jul 28, 2011

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Over the past several years, those of us in the data center industry have seen dramatic strides in Green IT, primarily focused on improving energy efficiency. It is now much more common to see data centers designed to meet the LEED standards of the U.S. Green Building Association (USGC).  In addition, through the efforts of The Green Grid, the industry has adopted a standard method for assessing the energy efficiency of data center infrastructure, known as power usage effectiveness (PUE). This standard gives data centers a better tool for messaging progress when evaluating ways to improve energy efficiency.

These are important steps. But, as President Josiah Bartlet used to ask on The West Wing: “What’s next?” I think onsite generation of green energy would be a major step forward. For instance, several companies, including Emerson, have added solar power to their data centers as a supplementary power source. Wind power also scales nicely to data center energy demands.

Biomass, however, may offer the best near-term route to onsite power generation as a primary energy source for a data center. Biomass-to-energy facilities convert just about any organic material made from plants or animals into electricity. Examples include wood and sawdust from forest slash or lumber mills, or agricultural wastes from plants or animals. It’s a clean, renewable energy source that reduces CO2 emissions.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists point out, there are a variety of biomass options as well as methods for converting the material to energy.  Some are green and some are not, so in planning a biomass-powered data center it is important to know the difference. Keep in mind that the material used as fuel would otherwise decay in a landfill or in a manure pile producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Plans for biomass data centers are underway in several states. As reported in Environmental Leader last year, HP Labs has developed a system that could power a 1 megawatt data center using manure from a 10,000 cow farm – with enough electricity left over the run the farm. In Missouri, community leaders are pushing for a data center to be powered by grass, wood or hay.

Closer to completion is the Vineyard Data Center Park in Colorado Springs, which will feature 100 percent renewable power. It’s scheduled to open this year. The 50-megawatt facility has been dubbed a “trash-burning data center” for its planned use of bio-solids and municipal waste. Based on recent discussions with industry experts, biomass projects are in various stages of development in Ohio and Georgia.

Biomass offers a likely choice for a data center’s on-site power needs because it is:

  • Scalable to 20- to 50-megawatt capacity to match the typical range of today’s data centers. Of course, you’ll still need a grid-connected supply of relatively clean power as a backup.
  • Reliable – as my engineer friends like to remind me about solar and wind power, the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. But biomass is reliant only a steady supply of the plant and/or animal material required for generating energy.
  • Affordable – the Vineyard Data Center Park claims that power costs will be 39 percent lower than the nation’s average rate.

So biomass is a good start on “greener IT.” Waste-heat recovery is the other opportunity. Data centers use vast amounts of water for cooling. Good news: a neighboring manufacturer may want to use your cooling water for process heating. It’s another way to cut CO2 emissions, since the manufacturer won’t need to heat water for its processes. And it boosts the data center’s Energy Reuse Effectiveness (ERE) rating. Everybody wins.

Another idea is to start building data centers in reclaimed facilities rather than creating new sites from the ground up. USGBC encourages the reuse of buildings as good for the environment. Keep in mind that reclaiming an existing facility may come with substantial tax breaks.

I started thinking about this after talking to a friend from high school about a paper mill closing in Hoquiam, Washington. We concluded that maybe it’s time the high-tech electronics industry that is rapidly displacing the need for paper could be the solution to reinvigorating these communities, buildings, and local economies.

The data center industry is continuing to work on maximizing energy efficiency – the fundamental issue that launched the green IT drive. But we’re also looking beyond this narrow issue to make these facilities as environmentally and socially responsible as possible.

What are your ideas for greener IT?

Jack Pouchet is Director of Energy Initiatives for Emerson Network Power.

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