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cowpietowerPhoto: Rachel Engstrand

A series of Google searches can require as much energy as an 11 Watt light bulb does in one hour. So you can only imagine how much energy it requires to run all of Google’s servers and other equipment (hint: a lot). Currently, many companies are attempting to reduce their energy usage through different methods. Google, for example, has developed advanced cooling methods and energy saving techniques to lower their environmental impact.

Other IT companies are quickly following suit. Most interesting is HP, which just yesterday presented a paper to the 4th International Conference on Energy Sustainability entitled “Design of Farm Waste-Driven Supply Side Infrastructure for Data Centers.” The paper describes HP’s plans to hopefully power their data centers with the manure of cows.

They have proposed what is essentially a closed loop system. The cow manure produced by a mid-sized dairy farm would be put through an anaerobic digester, creating electricity and heat. The electricity would be used to power the entire data center and the heat would be used to power the turbine of the data center’s cooling system. The waste heat generated by the data center can be funnelled back into the anaerobic digester to regulate its temperature. This allows it to run at maximum efficiency and therefore produce enough energy to also power the dairy farm, thus reducing the carbon footprint of both the dairy farm and the data center.

HP claims that a mid-sized dairy farm of about 10,000 cows produces an average of 200,000 tons of manure each year. Cow manure produces massive amounts of methane, which is known to be 21 times more detrimental to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Cow manure also pollutes local groundwater sources as well as nearby rivers and streams. HP’s plans will greatly reduce these effects as it will use the methane to generate electrical energy as well as prevent manure from leaching into water supplies.

HP would therefore reduce farm pollution as well as make both farms and data centers more sustainable. HP also estimates that this method of energy production could also help farms economically. They claim that dairy farmers would break even in costs in two years using this system and then earn approximately $2 million annually from selling waste-derived power to data center customers.

The director of HP’s Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab, Chandrakant Patel, says that the data centers could be placed near other farms or even near waterfalls and still be energy efficient. But the point is, he says, is to take data centers completely off the grid.