Will clean power and microgrids be the future of data centers?


Will an idea to build a data center park powered by onsite clean energy and paired with a microgrid in Colorado, represent the future of data centers? Created by developer Craig Harrison, the Niobrara Data Center Energy Park is a proposal for a company or even the government to build one or more data centers on a one-square mile plot of land in Colorado’s Weld County.

Harrison says the site is unique in that a natural gas power plant could be built on it (a gas hub is a few miles away), and has a sunny climate that would enable an onsite solar panel farm. These local clean energy sources could be connected in a microgrid that could add uptime security for a data center, as well as reduce efficiency losses from transmission.

A microgrid is basically an electrical network that can be islanded off in the case of an event like a power outage from the greater grid, and the microgrid could be self-sufficient for a period of time because it produces its own power and could have onsite storage. Harrison says the project represents “the largest proposed microgrid on the planet.”

Harrison says that the site also has unusual access to all of the necessary fiber and power lines needed to create a world class data center park, and also has a cool and dry climate that can deliver outside air for cooling, which reduces the need to use power-hungry chillers for cooling. The park could use the greater grid access points to receive power during necessary times.

While the park is just an idea at this point — it needs a company or the government to come in and actually build it — the notion is an interesting one in a world with more and more Internet giants building and designing their own data centers and needing to keep power requirements in mind. Facebook’s data center in Prineville, Oregon could require 78 MW when fully built out, and I think we’re entering the era where it won’t be uncommon for data centers to need around 100 MW. Harrison says his site could have a capacity for 100 MW.

Clearly the big Internet players that are building their own data centers are looking for ways to reduce the energy consumption of the data centers and servers. It’s a money-saver. Both Facebook and Google (s GOOG) are using outside air for cooling in their newest data centers, and specifically building data centers in regions like Sweden and Finland to be able to do so.

The Internet giants are also mulling over new forms of clean power to add to their data center mixes, to both help them control their energy sources and also to reduce their carbon footprints. Google has invested close to a billion into clean energy projects, while Apple has started building a solar farm at its data center in North Carolina.

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