As part of its mission to find more energy efficient, sustainable ways to operate large information technology systems, researchers at Hewlett-Packard Co. in the Silicon Valley are researching the concept of waste-powered data centers. HP Labs researchers presented a paper on the subject in May at an American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ energy sustainability conference in Phoenix.

Researchers have theoretically designed a supply-side infrastructure for data centers that runs primarily on energy from digested farm waste, principally cow manure. A team from HP Labs has now “done the math” to show that dairy farms and data centers could support one another, an HP spokesperson said.

Data centers as huge consumers of electricity have been the center of attention for some time within both the high-tech and energy industries.

Three years ago Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) announced what at the time was a first-of-its-kind cash incentive for a technology that held the promise for cutting power use in business data centers by up to 75%. Data storage was one of the fastest-growing business areas, so PG&E said it was seeking ways to cut electricity needed to power disks and cool computer units (see Power Market Today, April 17, 2007).

In general, data centers, which are spreading rapidly, can use up to 100 times the energy-per-square-foot of typical office space, the utility said.

Last year Xcel Energy’s Colorado utility began offering what it called a data center energy efficiency program designed to help information technology (IT) managers achieve more efficient energy use. The program provides businesses with cash rebates for commissioning studies to determine energy saving steps they can take and additional incentives for making changes.

“There is an [IT] industry need to explore new concepts in data center design,” according to Tom Christian, a senior researcher in HP’s Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab and the dairy farm project lead. HP has found that as data centers require increased power to operate they increasingly are being located near existing electric generation or cooling resources.

According to the research report that Christian and three other HP scientists published, a hypothetical farm’s waste from 10,000 dairy cows could provide the power needs of a 1 MW data center.

Although the researchers admit that it appears counterintuitive, the IT and livestock industries have “complementary characteristics” that they think can be useful for the mutual benefit of both industries. “We propose a resource management system to manage the resource flows and effluents, and evaluate the direct and indirect economic benefits,” the report authors said.

Their conclusion is that the existence of large dairy and animal feeding operations presents another co-location opportunity for data centers. However, at present HP said it has no plans to build a biogas-powered data center, according to a report Thursday in the Los Angeles Times.

In the meantime, utilities around the West indicate that companies of various sizes cutting across all industries have seen large growth rates in data storage, resulting in energy consumption increases in the 20-30% range annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Last year the EPA determined that for every $1 spent on IT, there is 50 cents spent on related energy costs.

“By 2011, experts predict that businesses will spend as much on energy as they do on hardware,” said a Denver-based Xcel spokesperson (see Power Market Today, July 15, 2009).

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