Microsoft, ranked as the third largest purchaser of green power among the Environmental Protection Agency's Top 50 Green Power Partnership organizations, will expand its contributions to sustainability with yet another cutting-edge research project -- the first zero carbon data center powered by a fuel cell burning 100 percent renewable biogas from a wastewater treatment plant.
The new, small prototype 300 kW “Data Plant” is being built outside of Cheyenne, Wyo. at the city’s Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility and will run on methane produced by the facility.
Microsoft reported the $8 million modular data center pilot, which will begin operating next spring, is just a fraction of the size of its other data centers and does not contain any production computing applications. However, if successful, it could be implemented on a megawatt scale at larger data centers in the future.
The Data Plant is expected to offset more than two million pounds of CO2 emissions per year, which is the equivalent of about 300 Honda Civics being taken off the road.
In May 2012, Microsoft announced a commitment to become carbon neutral beginning in 2013. Reliable on-site power generation that is environmentally-friendly is a key consideration for Microsoft as the company evaluates clean and renewable energy generation for its data centers that power the company's cloud services and support more than one billion customers and 20 million businesses globally.
Data centers have a voracious appetite for power.
According to a New York Times article written by James Glanz, “Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found…
“Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants, according to estimates industry experts compiled for The Times. Data centers in the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load, the estimates show,” Glanz wrote.
“It’s staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,” said Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”
Brian Janous, Microsoft data center advanced development utility architect, said, “We are strongly committed to improving the efficiency of our data centers. We will continue to deeply invest in designing and operating our data centers efficiently and with environmental sustainability in mind.”
Janous noted that while new data centers obviously are needed to meet increasing demands for cloud services, Microsoft believes the potential of cloud computing to remove carbon and reduce energy through efficiencies cannot be ignored.
“Our Data Plant project in Cheyenne is an excellent example of new thinking that can help address the energy efficiency and environmental sustainability for future data centers," Janous said. Additionally, the recent SMARTer2020 report notes that the potential for emissions abatement from products developed by the IT industry is seven times greater than the industry's carbon footprint. Janous added that even if the industry continues to grow at a rapid pace, Microsoft expects the efficiencies that the industry creates to exceed its consumption.
Christian Belady, Microsoft general manager of data center services, said he started introducing the idea of the Data Plant in 2010 as a grid independent data center.
“This concept opens up a host of options for a data center operations team, allowing it to target clean, sustainable, cost-effective and reliable fuel. A data plant can be integrated with the grid for backup, or in an island mode to facilitate locations that are not near large transmission lines. As an option, a connection to the grid would allow the power plant to maintain a maximum capacity factor; in other words any unused power can be sent back into the grid, keeping the power plant fully used at all times and eliminating the risk of stranding capacity,” Belady said.
Janous said Microsoft’s data center design strategy continues to evolve and today the company is designing new facilities to be up to 30 to 50 percent more efficient than other industry data centers.
“A key measurement in calculating energy efficiency in data centers is Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) and we began using PUE as a critical measurement in our data centers in 2005 during the design of our Generation 2 data centers," Janous said. "Our latest data centers are Generation 4."
While Microsoft does not release the exact number of its data centers, Janous said “we can disclose the existence of facilities at the following locations, which are representative of our global portfolio: Amsterdam; Hong Kong; Japan; Singapore; Chicago; Dublin; San Antonio, Texas; and Quincy, Wash.”
In a blog, Sean James, senior research program manager for Microsoft Data Center Advanced Development said Microsoft — which has 850 researchers working on 55 areas of study at its worldwide labs — has been developing more efficient and sustainable data center infrastructures to support customers' growing demand for online services since 1994.
“With this Data Plant pilot project, we are taking another step in that important journey, while also working to address some of the global challenges facing us all regarding energy, waste and water resources today. We have crucial questions to address as a global community. Where will we get our future energy? How will we eliminate our increasing quantity of waste? How do we ensure abundant access to clean water for all?”
Added James, “The Data Plant provides an exciting, first-of-its kind opportunity to develop viable capabilities and best practices for capturing and reusing natural bi-products like biogas directly from wastewater treatment plants, agricultural farms, fuel refineries, and waste landfill sites, etc. in the future.”
James said biogas fuel sources are typically not economical to recover and convert to grid energy and are usually flared-off. By capturing and reusing biogas on premise the city of Cheyenne can significantly reduce its carbon emissions while producing beneficial uses at the same time.
FuelCell Energy, Inc., Danbury, Conn., is supplying its sub-megawatt Direct FuelCell (DFC) power plant to the Data Plant. It will provide 200 kW of power for the plant that will be housed in a modular IT pre-assembled component (ITPAC) that will house servers to recreate a data center environment. Excess power will go to the water reclamation facility to offset electric costs. In the event of a grid outage, the Data Plant project and fuel cell plant will be configured to operate independently to provide continuous power.
"Our fuel cell technology is uniquely positioned to provide what other megawatt-class power generation products can't, which is efficiently converting renewable biogas into continuous base load power right where the biogas is generated and in a manner that is virtually absent of pollutants," said Chip Bottone, FuelCell president and CEO. "The economics of our on-site power generation solutions are well suited for data centers, including the ability to use renewable biogas as a fuel source to provide carbon neutral power."
Janous said customer demand is a key consideration when choosing data center sites, but Microsoft also takes into account more than 35 weighted criteria in its “global heat map,” including close proximity to an ample, stable and affordable power source, fiber optic networks, and a pool of skilled labor.
Microsoft, in fact, is building a new $112 million cloud data center complex near the National Center for Atmospheric Research supercomputing facility west of Cheyenne in an industrial park operated by Cheyenne LEADS, the economic development organization for Cheyenne and Laramie County, Wyo. This continues a building boom for Microsoft, which in the last year announced expansions of its data centers in Virginia, at Quicy and at Dublin.
Janous said, “We have excellent working relationships with many Wyoming state and local organizations as a result of our work to locate the traditional data center in Cheyenne. Ultimately Cheyenne was chosen for the site of our Data Plant project due to strong interest by these organizations to research and develop methods that could help provide sustainable resources for their energy portfolio.”
In addition to Cheyenne LEADS, a diverse coalition of entities is participating in bringing the project to fruition, including the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities, Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power Company, Western Research Institute, the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Business Council.
Randy Bruns, CEO of Cheyenne LEADS, said Wyoming's natural energy resources include coal, oil, and natural gas. Given its increasing need for renewable energy sources, Wyoming has been investing in advanced energy technologies that include both renewable and clean carbon conversion processes.
“The state and its local organizations have been very proactive in partnering with companies like Microsoft and FuelCell Energy to research and develop methods that will help provide sustainable resources for our state’s energy portfolio. In addition, Wyoming's industries will also be able to benefit from the clean CO2 that is produced from this Data Plant. Wyoming has a large demand for clean CO2 and today a CO2 pipeline intersects the state with expansion projects currently in planning,” Bruns said.
“Typically, Cheyenne LEADS focuses on projects that bring jobs, but we are very comfortable with the Data Plant project. It has generated a lot of interest and attention for the state and us. We have real resources here that are a good match for Microsoft. One of our strengths is being able to build public-private partnerships and the ability to bring the right people to the table. We are very pleased that Microsoft recognizes our sustainable resources,” Bruns said.
"This is a great project and an example of our broad efforts in advanced energy technologies and clean carbon conversion in Wyoming," added Bob Jensen, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council.
Once the project ends, Microsoft said it will donate the Data Plant (including the fuel cell, clean-up equipment, servers and modular data center) to the city of Cheyenne and the University of Wyoming to further advance other clean technology research and development projects.
James said, in the end “this highly efficient modular data center must be capable of sustaining reliable online services, independent of the electrical grid. It must be able to handle all the sudden spikes and dips of online services' traffic that our current data centers manage, while maintaining high availability. Load management is easy when connected to the grid.”
Belady said the IT industry faces some clear challenges with respect to power, carbon, and water as a resource.
“Within Microsoft, we are working to proactively address these issues," he said. "You can expect massive integration in cloud infrastructure, and it's purely driven by sustainability and a total cost of ownership advantage. Remember, lower costs generally mean better sustainability too. If you drive your costs down, you are actually using less material and energy. That also makes it more sustainable. Think about that in terms of the data center infrastructure and about data as the next form of energy.”