It reads like the script from a Sundance Channel special. It could not come at a better time, as energy concerns are up and costs are up, too. It only seems like the world of science fiction because of the way the announcement comes – as if someone was a little touched and decided to change their ways.


HP: Cow poop can make data centers greener

Collocating dairy farms and data centers creates an unusual opportunity for a symbiosis

Combine dairy farms with server farms, and what do you get? Sustainable data centers, according to recent research from HP.

Pardon the semi-joking observation, but there must be much more power in that stuff than anyone ever thought.

The company released a paper this week detailing how collocated data centers and dairy farms could work together to leverage one another’s waste: Biogas derived from the cow manure could generate electricity for the data center. Meanwhile, the heat waste from the data center could warm other facilities on the farm — including the digester, which extracts biogas from the manure.

All in all, HP estimates that a farm with 10,000 dairy cows could fulfill the power requirements of a 1MW data center.

That’s a lot of power. And though we knew that there was “free” energy there, I am wondering why it took so long for someone to actually do the math.

Individual components of HP’s proposals aren’t particularly new. Companies such as Fujitsu and Google have been generating electricity on-site for their data centers for a while. Also, farms have been using cow manure to create electricity, both for on-site use and to sell back to their local utilities. Finally, companies have discovered innovative ways to reuse data center heat, whether to warm up offices or heat the local community swimming pool. This plan, however, takes collocation and heat reuse to new levels.

The economic benefits of this sort of system are pretty obvious. Data center operators would have access to a reliable source of clean energy, presumably at a competitive if not lower cost than what’s on the market. Dairy farmers would make money selling electricity to data center customers — roughly $2 million annually in revenue after the first two years.

I would also think that this could get the people off the meat eater’s backs, telling us how we need to eat lower on the food chain, and all that. I do much to be green, but I am not ready to give up lifelong eating habits.

There’s also a notable environmental benefit: A system that extracts biogas from manure would reduce the hefty environmental impact of cow waste. (Methane is 21 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide, according to the HP paper.) Additionally, when future greenhouse gas regulations emerge — which is almost certain — farmers will benefit from carbon offsets for capturing and reusing methane.

If you’re an IT admin who dreads the thought of working at a data center that’s within smelling range of a dairy farm, take heart. The proposed waste management system  “eliminates the odor that is typically associated with large farms,” according to the paper.

And so there is a happy, not stinky, ending to the story. I wonder how long it will take to see the first one of these happen. Certainly in the central region of California there would be more than a few places where the undertaking would be welcomed.


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