How To Power Your Data Centre With Sewage

Getting access to reliable and cheap power is one of the biggest challenges for data centres of any size. One of the more radical solutions? Using the biogas from sewage.

In the keynote speech at Data Center World in Las Vegas today, Microsoft director of energy strategy Brian Janous discussed how work is progressing on the biogas-powered pilot data centre in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “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.”

Microsoft first announced plans for the biogas-powered data centre last November. It’s an intriguing strategy, though it’s not necessarily one that will be widely adopted, if only because the current design relies on being located adjacent to an existing waste-water plant, a piece of urban planning that might prove tricky for the average data centre manager to engineer.

“It’s not grid independent, it’s about tying into a different grid, whether it’s the gas grid or the sewage grid. It’s going to be different answers all over the world.” In the US, Microsoft is actively pursuing gas power sources for grids, but that strategy reflected the lower price for gas in the States, Janous said. It would be less practical in Asia or Europe where gas is costlier (or in Australia where a large portion of gas for energy immediately heads off-shore).

The parallels between this sort of (ahem) production process run deeper than just the source of energy powering a single centre, Janous argued. “Energy is the raw material of the cloud. The cloud is just a data factory I’m taking a raw material –energy — and I’m putting it through a process to refine it into data and put it across the network. It’s the same business as far as I’m concerned.

“On a very micro level, we have large centralised plants, we have a network that we distribute our product over, and we have a need to balance supply and demand on a near-instantaneous basis. There’s not a lot of industries that need to do that.”

Lifehacker’s World Of Servers sees me travelling to conferences around Australia and around the globe in search of fresh insights into how server and infrastructure deployment is changing in the cloud era. This week, I’m in Las Vegas for Data Center World, looking at how the role of the data centre is changing and evolving.

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