growing your own: micro-generation for data centers

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Energy continues to be a pressure point for IT departments. Electricity rarely seems to get cheaper, and as we cram more computing equipment into each square foot of our data centres, getting the energy into the building to run it all becomes an increasingly challenging prospect.

One solution is gaining traction - why not generate your own electricity?

Relying on external electricity is, after all, fraught with risk. A substation could blow out, leaving a data centre with no power, and meaning that companies may be faced with the prospect of connecting to two separate power sources. Or you may simply exhaust a substation’s ability to supply your facility with enough energy to get the job done. Generating energy locally as a backup or auxiliary source, is a way of hedging that risk.

Traditional renewable energy production, in the form of wind and solar power, has its limitations. Power is only generated when the sun shines, or when the wind blows, which makes it difficult to guarantee that energy will always be available. However, there is another alternative: natural gas.

Natural gas is cheap, plentiful, and can be piped in constantly, making it a viable energy source. Researchers are currently experimenting with gas-powered data centres, with impressive results.

For example Syracuse University operates a data centre using micro turbines that not only power the racks inside the facility, but also cool them down.

Burning natural gas powers micro-turbines, which provide the energy to power the data centre’s computing equipment, while also priming the uninterruptible power supplies, in case of unexpected energy disruption. There is an added efficiency, however: cogeneration.

Cogeneration involves the use of excess heat from the turbines, which can be run through heat exchangers, either to heat an adjacent building to the data centre, or to provide energy to an absorption chiller. This chiller uses the heat as an energy source to create cold air or fluid, which can be used to cool the data centre’s equipment.

It is important to realise that such projects are easier to deploy in academic environments. Campus data centres often have many buildings nearby that can benefit from the heat generated by burning natural gas. And their research status makes the cost of micro-turbines easier to justify. Nevertheless, perhaps as the pressures on commercial facilities managers continue, and as the need to find more power sources to sustain increasingly dense racks grows, making power locally might become more attractive.

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.