Microsoft: Power Data Centres with Sewage Gas

May 2, 2013

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Every year one or two presentations at the Data Centre World conference stand above the rest, mainly due to being completely impossible or terribly eccentric. So far this year the winner has to be a presentation offered by Microsoft's Brian Janous earlier this week. In his remarks, Janous let it be known that his Redmond, Washington employer was looking at the possibility of using biogas from sewage to power new data centres. It must be noted that Janous' announcement was not necessarily new territory. Microsoft first talked of the biogas plans last autumn. However, the inherent weakness of the plan left most of us in the technology sector doubting Microsoft could pull it off. Yet according to Janous, the company's pilot project in Cheyenne, Wyoming is progressing nicely. The idea of powering a data centre with sewage biogas is not technologically complicated by any means. You simply install the equipment necessary to harness sewage biogas in order to turn turbines that will generate electricity. This equipment is installed at, or very near to, a wastewater treatment facility. And therein lies the problem… Being able to find available land near enough to a wastewater facility to make it viable is nothing short of challenging. And that's in the US. In Europe, it's near to impossible. Yet in order to make the plan viable the data centre cannot be too far away from the source of gas. Despite its flaws, Microsoft is moving full steam ahead with its plans. Their plan to use sewage biogas is just one part of the larger Microsoft effort to tap into other, non-traditional power grids. “We see a tremendous opportunity for the data centre and the power source to come together,” he said. “That’s a pretty reliable grid. Generally, we’re going to continue to have lots and lots of sewage.”

A Sound Concept Overall

While Microsoft biogas plants may not be financially practical or geographically viable for large-scale deployments, the basic concept is sound nonetheless. There are tremendous sources of energy we do not readily tap into; energy sources that are otherwise wasted because we have not yet attempted to harness them. For example, municipal heating operations generate significant amounts of energy that are just allowed to escape into the atmosphere. Likewise, landfills create an almost unending supply of methane gas. If we applied Microsoft's idea to tap into as many non-traditional grids as possible, we would be making better use of this energy. In the era of cloud computing, this becomes especially important. Cloud computing uses a tremendous amount of energy that will only increase as the cloud grows. And, as Janous pointed out, data communications amount to nothing more than energy transfers in the form of digital information. As the amount of data communication traffic increases, the need for additional energy will grow right along with it. We need other energy sources, and we need them now.