Data centers are just big power plants these days, so why not self-generate? As a former power plant engineer, my answer to that question is long. The simple answer is, with many data centers today in proximity to urban cores, who wants a smoke stack next to their condo?
With that said, as regional “super” hubs of data center finance and development, such as Ashburn and Phoenix, are giving birth to increasingly large-scale developments with accompanying city-sized power plants and utility infrastructure, power generation and fuel diversity are increasingly brought into focus. This brings a challenge and a corresponding opportunity providing you have the right investment philosophy.
Reliable access to cheap power is a chief concern for data center owners and operators to keep costs down and a selling point in an industry increasingly prioritizing eco-friendliness in their data center research. Many firms now partially utilize alternative sources of energy, like wind or solar power, to keep their carbon footprint to a minimum and decrease their reliance on power grids. Some facilities have taken their efforts even further, designing more creative ways of using natural energy sources to become even more independent and cost-effective.
Biomass and waste-to-energy fuels, including methane, are sustainable and relatively untapped sources of energy for data centers. According to Environmental Leader contributor Jack Pouchet, biomass is a catch-all term for organic material from plants and animals, extending from animal waste to crop residue to sawdust. This material can be converted into energy, providing a clean, renewable source of electricity that significantly reduces a facility’s carbon footprint. Pouchet wrote that biomass, more than other alternative energy sources, could be the most viable option as a data center’s primary energy source owing to widespread availability, ease of use and low cost. With the proper design, fuel diversity also adds to the survivability and availability of mission critical infrastructure.
Biomass Data Centers?
While many data center consumers have embraced sustainability wholeheartedly, concern in some circles over the alleged volatility of the renewables market has waylaid some from investing in data centers that are partially or primarily powered by alternative energy sources. That’s not all that surprising – after all, Pouchet wrote, the sun doesn’t shine eternally, and wind levels rarely remain constant for very long. This can present challenges that data center operators are still trying to work out. However, biomass, especially generated in a managed environment, can provide a constant, uninterruptible source of fuel.
The use of biomass can also help organizations establish a “green” reputation. In an industry that give serious weight (and often financial and tax benefits) to organizations that display a commitment toward environmental sustainability, having such an image offers clear benefits. Affiliation with a green data center can help organizations reinforce a key business reputation component, save money and clean up the environment all at the same time.