What you need to know about data centers & biogas

At first glance biogas — gas that is produced by the breakdown of organic matter — and data centers that are powering the world’s always-on websites don’t seem like a clear fit. The first is an industry in the U.S. in its infancy, and the second is undergoing a rapidly exploding construction boom.

But an increasing number of Internet companies are experimenting with turning to biogas as an emerging source to power part of their data centers. Why? Well, for quite a few reasons. Here’s what you need to know about this emerging phenomenon of biogas and data centers:

1). Where does biogas come from?: Biogas is created when organic matter is broken down in an anaerobic digester and the gas is captured. An anaerobic digestor is a closed tank that doesn’t let any oxygen in, and enables anaerobic bacteria to digest the organic material at a nice, warm temperature. Biogas can come from sources like landfills, hog, chicken and cow farm waste, and waste water treatment plants.

2). Is biogas green?: Biogas in many states is considered renewable energy because it is mostly methane gas and can be used in place of fossil fuels for heating, electricity or powering transportation. Methane is a greenhouse gas, and it is also being captured from being released into the atmosphere in this process. In some states the biogas has to be certified, cleaned and monitored to make sure it is sufficiently renewable. Collecting and utilizing waste also has a benefit for farms — for example the hog industry in North Carolina can use biogas digesters to move away from large lagoons of hog waste that pollute the environment and have a noxious odor.

3). Which Internet companies are interested in biogas?: One of the largest biogas data center projects in the world is under development by Apple (s AAPL) at its data center in Maiden, North Carolina. Apple is building a close to 5 MW fuel cell farm that it plans to run entirely on biogas (eventally), using fuel cells I think will come from Bloom Energy. The biogas that the Apple fuel cell farm plans to use will be “Directed Biogas,” which is biogas that is cleaned and monitored and injected into a natural gas pipeline. When the fuel cells use natural gas from the pipeline they aren’t directly using the biogas, but the equivalent amount of biogas is being injected into the pipeline instead. Apple hasn’t disclosed where it plans to get the biogas, and will use natural gas first, and eventually biogas.

Microsoft is planning to develop a grid-independent fuel cell-powered data center, called the Data Plant, that runs directly off of biogas. The company said it plans to build this data center directly on a water treatment plant or landfill site, and the data center will directly use the biogas produced at the plant.

Google has also been researching — and has partly funded — a biogas project in North Carolina, but Google isn’t specifically connecting that to a data center. eBay has Bloom Energy fuel cells using biogas at its headquarters, but not to my knowledge for its data centers.

4). How much biogas is being captured and used in the U.S.?: Not much. According to the American Biogas Council, there are only over 160 anaerobic digesters on farms and about 1,500 more operating at wastewater treatment plants. Of those 1,500 at wastewater treatment plants only about 250 actually use the biogas and the others flare it off. In comparison there are 65,000 dairy farms in the U.S., says the American Biogas Council. In the rest of the world there are more anaerobic digesters in use — the American Biogas Council says there are probably in the hundreds of thousands or over a million anaerboic digesters in use globally.

5). Why are Internet companies interested in biogas? Data center operators are looking at biogas as a way to reduce their carbon footprints, as a way of doing green PR and as a way to control their source of energy. Data centers are rapidly being built throughout the U.S., and large data centers suck up a lot of power. Companies like Apple and Amazon have been criticized by environmentalists like Greenpeace for building data centers in regions with cheap and dirty power from coal. Adding in biogas-powered fuel cells is a way to make the energy for their data centers greener.

6). Regardless of biogas, data center operators are eying fuel cells: Even more of a trend than biogas, is the fact that data center operators are increasingly looking at using fuel cells for distributed cleaner power. Mostly fuel cells will use natural gas (a cleaner source than coal, but still a fossil fuel) which is cheap and abundant — a small fraction of the fuel cells will use biogas.

As Microsoft’s General Manager for its Data Center Services, Christian Belady, put it: the fuel cell is “a very reliable source of energy while producing a fraction of the emissions that other generation technology emits.” Bloom Energy recently created a division to focus on fuel cells for data centers, which will provide a high degree of reliability for the data center operator. Belady also says:

In addition to the clean technology benefits, fuel cells offer us a host of other advantages including increased Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF), higher availability, pay as we grow, flexibility in fuel sources, high electrical efficiency, combined heat and power source, and reduced dependence on traditional data center infrastructures such as five minute UPS and back-up diesel generators.