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Data Centers Hit the Coast and Tap the Tides

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Given that most of the world’s data centers are built smack in the middle of large swaths of land, the notion of powering data centers with tidal power sounds about as smart as tapping into solar power undersea. But some early adopters, like Atlantis Resources — which said earlier this week that it’s raised $14 million in funding — are planning on using tidal turbines to feed power to data centers located on or near coastlines. Atlantis wants to plug into two data centers that are being planned in Scotland, one on the coast of the Pentland Firth in Caithness, the other further southwest, in Dumfries and Galloway.

Oliver Williams, a spokesman for Atlantis in the UK, told us that if the company wanted to connect its tidal tubines to the grid, it could take about 10 years to get approval in Scotland, but hooking up to a data center could happen right away — as early as 2011. Atlantis, backed by Morgan Stanley and Statkraft, inherited the first data center project, called Blue Datacenter, from Morgan Stanley as part of a deal with the investment bank last September. The second data center, called Alba 1, comes from Internet Villages International, which teamed up with Atlantis earlier this year.


It may be sexier to build a floating data center, such as those being planned by Google (s GOOG) and startup International Data Security, but the land-based Blue Datacenter and Alba 1 could prove to be more practical alternatives as they won’t ever be at risk of sinking to the bottom of the ocean, taking all of our precious Gmail, Twitter feeds and banking information with them.

Companies such as ISPs or online retailers that use the data centers could have the added benefit of being able to claim that their web services are powered by clean power, which is a small but growing interest for IT firms. Atlantis says the Scottish data centers won’t just be limited to tidal power. Williams said Alba 1 is expected to get power from wind, small hydro, tidal and biomass.

The Pentland Firth, which the Blue Datacenter is next to, has been called the Saudi Arabia of ocean power, and that area is already host to the only full-scale wave and tidal power testing site in the world, but it’s not the only spot that could support a tidal powered data center. In addition to the floating data centers envisioned for San Francisco, the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia could end up being another hub for tidal power.

The Crown Estate, which manages the seabed and most of the coast in the UK, as well as a huge amount of property on land, still needs to give the go-ahead for the turbines. As its name implies, the estate is technically owned by the Queen, but it’s actually managed by an independent organization and is accountable to Parliament.

That independent organization is limiting the Scottish projects to just 10 MW each for an initial two-year trial period. So Atlantis plans to partner with another tidal turbine developer to feed even more power to the data centers. Atlantis expects to make an announcement on its pick in about six weeks, according to spokesman Williams. Atlantis has two types of turbines — one for shallow water and another for deep water — so it’ll be able to generate up to 20 MW total, or 10 MW for each type of turbine. With another turbine company at the table, that number goes up to 30 MW.

The Crown Estate plans to hand out lease agreements for the seabed this summer, with a target of delivering 700 megawatts of wave and tidal power by 2020.

Photo of Nereus turbine courtesy of Atlantis Resources.

One Response to “Data Centers Hit the Coast and Tap the Tides”

  1. A study from McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2020, the world’s data centers could surpass the airline industry as a greenhouse gas polluter. So, it’s great to see that companies are stepping up and seeking out ways to reduce the carbon footprint of these energy guzzlers. Improving efficiencies and utilizing clean power are certainly steps in the right direction.