Well, I sure didn’t see this one coming. HP Labs researchers this week put forth an intriguing idea for powering data centers: harvesting and processing dairy cow waste.
Under their plan, dairy farmers get an additional revenue stream and data center operators get a clean and cost-effective source of energy. Plus, the environment benefits because the atmosphere is spared the heat-trapping effects of methane and cows, not coal plants, provide much of the power. Sounds like a solid win all around, but is it a practical green data center strategy or a distraction? To find out, let’s weigh a “pro” and a potentially controversial “con.”
In the “pro” column is the 40th parallel, a line that extends from the east coast of the U.S., roughly bisecting the nation from the center of New Jersey to northwest California. For cattle farmers, this line generally means the difference between generating electricity from methane in the South, where warm ambient temperatures help anaerobic digesters maximize the production of the biogas, or simply burning off relatively meager amounts collected in the North to prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere. In short, waste data center heat can be put to good use north of the 40th parallel by using it to maximize the energy generation potential of cow waste.
Why is it a big deal? Overlay the 40th parallel on NREL’s solar resource maps, and it’s easy to see that data center operators who can’t justify siting their new facilities in southern regions to best exploit solar energy now have more renewable energy options up North. And more clean energy options are always a good thing.
In the “con” column is the growing attention that’s being paid to U.S. agribusiness. In recent years, documentaries like Food, Inc. have put farming under the microscope, generating awareness about the treatment and living conditions of the animals we rely on for food. Needless to day, it takes a strong stomach to watch some segments and the last thing that organizations need to worry about — while juggling sustainable business practices, clean energy sourcing and e-waste, no less — is to combat the negative association that may result from cozy ties with big dairy producers.
So before we enlist Bessie to green up our computing facilities, let’s focus on some of the more practical methods (subscription required) of building some sustainable IT momentum.
For more insight into this issue, be sure to read my full post at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).