Getting to clean power for today’s data center

Improving the energy efficiency of a data center and getting better PUE (power usage effectiveness) metrics is one thing. But the quest to source clean power for the modern data center often involves jumping through some much bigger hoops.
Companies on a quest for clean power have a few choices. They can move the data center to a place where clean power is abundant, as Google has done through wind power investments in Iowa related to its Council Bluffs data center. Alternatively in cases like Apple’s North Carolina data center, a company realizes that it wants clean power and winds up making significant investments on-site as Apple has done with a solar array and fuel cells.
Finally, if the company can go to a co-location option and doesn’t need dedicated control, it can go as far afield as Iceland where companies like Verne Global offer renewable energy powered data centers, leveraging Iceland’s massive data pipe to Europe and abundant geothermal and hydroelectric power.
But what if data centers were only built with clean power in mind? I’ve long wondered if we’d see a brand of data centers or co-location centers that generates its own clean power and offers such a branded service to anyone in need of data center services. It would open up the possibility of sourcing clean power for all companies beyond those like Apple and Google, which have extensive resources to invest in such large scale projects. Furthermore, what if a company like Rackspace or Amazon Web Services offered clean powered cloud computing services? We’re seeing some of this trend in some utility markets, for example, where customers can choose to only purchase clean power.
To this end, there was an interesting step in that general direction recently. A new partnership between Vieste Energy and Environmental Systems Design would create a portfolio of U.S. data centers that only run on renewable power. Each data center would be in the 8 to 15 megawatt range.
Most interestingly, the companies aren’t looking at solar arrays or fuel cells. They’re talking about a companion waste-to-energy facility, which is an approach to powering the data center with less precedent. The infrastructure will include a turbine generator feeding both the IT equipment and the cooling systems.
Greenbiz quotes the companies developing the project as saying:

“This portfolio of renewable energy power generation facilities coupled with environmentally friendly solid waste management creates a very low PUE (power usage effectiveness) and a negative carbon footprint, one of the first undertakings of its kind in the United States. The first phase of this portfolio is funded and development is under way.”

The first site in Glendale, Arizona is on 8.5 acres of land and includes a 30 year agreement with the city to have it provide 180,000 tons of residential municipal waste per year, “enough biogas feedstock to produce 14 MW of energy for the proposed data center.”
The critical question of course is what power rates such a buildout will provide.  The companies didn’t disclose any pricing, only saying they would offer “extremely competitive utility rates.” With many co-location data centers offering pricing in the 4-6 cents per kilowatt hour range, there’s tremendous pricing pressure. The advantage of the renewable energy approach to the data center will always be the fact that energy pricing can remain stable over a long time frame because the underlying fuel resource cost is more stable. Or free, as in the case of solar. But the power rate will need to be competitive.
Which explains why Vieste was careful to lock up a 30-year waste supply agreement with the city of Glendale, Arizona. I’ll be keeping an eye on this project but for companies looking to source renewables for their cloud infrastructure, this is a very interesting option, not the least because waste-to-energy solutions allow data centers to source clean power at lots of new locations, particularly in urban areas.