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HP: For Green Data Centers, Have a Cow

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Well, I sure didn’t see this one coming. In keeping with HP’s newfound ability to shock and awe (Palm, anyone?), company 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 have a look at one big “pro” and a potentially bigger “con.”

The 40th Parallel

Our “pro,” the 40th parallel, is 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 means the difference between generating electricity from methane or just burning it off. This HP Labs paper (PDF) explains:

Lastly, an existing “rule of thumb” is that farms north of the 40th parallel cannot use anaerobic digestion to generate power, as it is believed that all of the methane produced would have to be used to heat the manure to the optimal operating temperature. Instead, the methane is simply flared off, losing out on the potential energy benefits; flaring does, however, substitute CO2 for methane as a less-objectionable GHG emission. Combining the farm-waste supply-side infrastructure with an IT data center would enable farmers to use waste heat for the digestion process, potentially making power generation economically feasible in colder climates than previously thought possible.

In short, waste data center heat can be put to good use north of the 40th parallel by helping to maximize the energy generation potential of cow waste. Why is this 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 — cost and proximity to corporate offices are typically big factors — now have more renewable energy options up North to best exploit solar energy.

And now, the “con.”

IT and Agribusiness: Courting Controversy?

HP Labs’ researchers make a strong case for considering dairy farms for green data centers. However, their analysis has one shortcoming: It’s clinical to a fault, devoting no attention to the living conditions of the lynchpin of the entire operation: the cows. Sure, they touch upon the some of negative environmental impacts of large and concentrated farming operations, but the analysis is completely devoid of a crucial element in the green business movement, namely, public perception.

In recent years, documentaries like “Food, Inc.” have put agribusiness under the microscope, generating awareness about the treatment and living situations of the animals we rely on for food. Squalid conditions, overcrowding, animals that never see the light of day… Needless to say, it takes a strong stomach to watch some segments of the film, and the last thing organizations need to worry about — while juggling sustainable business practices, clean energy sourcing and e-waste, no less — is combatting the negative association that may result from cozy ties with big dairy producers. Imagine the uproar if HP built a data center that got its energy from cows discovered to have lived in the conditions depicted in “Food, Inc.”

I applaud HP Labs’ efforts and would certainly love to see rural economies benefit from increasing data center demand. However, like I argued in my Facebook piece all those months ago, siting a data center nowadays involves more than solving technical challenges and making the financials work. Simply put, if you’re building a green data center, energy sourcing matters.

And if there’s ever to be a successful and economically fruitful synergy between farms and data center operators, IT execs will want to make sure that the energy supply powering their servers are happy cows indeed. So before we enlist Bessie to green up our computing facilities, let’s focus on some of the more practical methods of building sustainable IT momentum.

Question of the week

Can rural data centers become a staple of America’s heartland?