Biomass-Powered Data Centers

U.S. companies plan to develop biopowered computer data centers to reap the benefits of local supply and competitive power pricing.
By Matt Soberg | September 20, 2011

U.S. companies are researching and developing biopowered computer data centers due to the availability of local feedstocks and the resulting competitive power pricing for consumers. Vineyards LLC has developed a shovel-ready data center campus in Colorado Springs, Colo., and intends to use local municipal waste and mountain pine beetle-killed timber as fuel. HP Labs, an advanced research group for Hewlett Packard, has released research on data center facilities powered by dairy farm waste.
The Vineyards Data Center Park will utilize a 50-megawatt plant that will be built on a 100-acre development south of downtown Colorado Springs. Developers are in the process of selecting a capital partner, and expect data center units will be available for occupancy by the spring of 2012.

The local utility, Colorado Springs Utilities, is designing, planning and constructing the plant, with an estimated completion date of 2014. The biomass plant is a joint venture, providing electricity to the Vineyards and the city of Colorado Springs. 

The use of biomass for energy is attractive to the Vineyards for various reasons including feedstock availability and bioenergy’s competitive power pricing, which should be enticing to data center occupants.

The plant will utilize municipal waste and locally derived woody biomass, particularly mountain pine beetle-killed timber from the nearby mountain region, which provides an excellent use of woody biomass from an unfortunate forestry problem.

Greg Vernon, vice president of Wired Real Estate Group, says the Vineyards is compatible with the city’s initiative to promote renewable energy resources, and the overall cost of the power within the utility power structure, including bioenergy, is attractive to businesses. According to Vernon, the competitive power pricing results in approximately 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Wired Real Estate Group is the data center brokerage and advisory firm that represents Vineyards.

The development will include 800,000 square feet of building space with approximately 400,000 square feet used directly for data centers. Public and private investment in the development to completion, including the biomass plant, is estimated at $1 billion.

The exploratory research arm of computer giant Hewlett Packard, released a study in the spring of 2010 showing scientific justification for powering data centers with cow manure. The resulting research showed how a 10,000-head dairy farm could supply enough bioenergy to power a 1-megawatt data center along with satisfying additional farm electrical needs. The methane produced from the dairy waste through anaerobic digestion is used to produce electricity for the center.

“The idea of using animal waste to generate energy has been around for centuries, with manure being used every day in remote villages to generate heat for cooking,” says Tom Christian, principal research scientist at the Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab. “The new idea that we are presenting in this research is to create a symbiotic relationship between farms and the IT ecosystem that can benefit the farm, the data center and the environment.”

The study found that one cow can produce 120 pounds of manure a day, which is enough to power television usage in three U.S. households per day through 3 kilowatt-hours of electricity, and that 10,000 cows could produce 200,000 metric tons of manure per year, creating significant amounts of bioenergy. The study projected that farmers would break even from costs within the first two years and then could earn nearly $2 million annually from selling bioenergy to data center consumers. 

Chandrakant Patel, HP fellow and director of the Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab, says the research took a supply and demand perspective looking directly at renewable resource availability. Patel stresses that data centers should exploit local resources, including biomass in the form of manure. The goal was to develop a template whereby data centers would be energy self-sufficient. 

The research conducted by the Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab is focused on creating fully sustainable ecosystems over the long term utilizing biomass, wind and solar power. Utilizing biomass power transforms a computer data center from being a utility power consumer to being energy neutral.

—Matt Soberg