Microsoft’s Methane-Powered Module: A First Step Towards Data Plants

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A depiction of one of Microsoft’s server-filled IT PAC data center modules paired with a fuel cell at a water treatment plant. Microsoft is deploying a similar system in a proof-of-concept in Cheyenne, Wyoming. (Image: Microsoft)

Microsoft has begun the first phase of its ambitious plan to place data centers alongside sources of renewable energy, creating “data plants” than operate with no connection to the utility power grid.

The company is preparing to deploy a data center container filled with servers next to a water treatment plant in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and power the servers using electricity from a fuel cell running on methane biogas from the plant.

Last week an economic development agency in Wyoming approved a $1.5 million grant to help the city of Cheyenne adapt the infrastructure of its Dry Creek Water Reclamation facility for the project, which was announced by Microsoft back in April.

Larger Vision for Data Plants

The initiative is starting small, with a single IT-PAC container. But this proof-of-concept is a first step toward a larger vision in which Microsoft hopes to leverage the size of its cloud computing infrastructure to make large-scale deals for renewable power.

Microsoft executives compare the methane-powered module to an earlier experiment in which it operated servers in a tent in an equipment yard, which demonstrated the resilience of servers cooled with fresh air, and laid the groundwork for a major shift toward free cooling that has saved the company millions of dollars in energy and equipment for mechanical cooling systems.

‘One of the things that’s compelling is that we can look at a fuel cell and CHP (combined heat and power) plants,” said Brian Janous, Utility Architect at Microsoft. “It’s not a question of whether it will work, but where it will work.”

New Geography and New Math for Infrastructure

With the data plant concept, Microsoft brings compute and energy infrastructure closer together. But it also expands the universe of power sources beyond traditional electric utilities, adding water treatment plants, wind generation farms and solar power facilities as potential power suppliers. That opens the door for the company to rethink its data center infrastructure using new geography, new partners and new math.

“That allows us to go beyond traditional avenues and go into wholesale markets and engage with generators,” said Janous, who added that the scale of the company’s network of cloud computing facilities “creates for us the ability to run a portfolio rather than individual assets. The traditional approach has been that (energy) is all local. Our approach is to take a step beyond, and be more aware of opportunities to be global.”

In a recent interview, Janous said Microsoft is analyzing financial and regulatory issues to determine the best way to leverage its scale and balance sheet to create opportunities for on-site power and bulk purchasing agreements.

“We’ve talked to large power companies and smaller developers,” said Janous. “With on-site, the benefit of scale is that we can run demonstration projects.”

Like the Cheyenne project, which appears to be separate from Microsoft’s recently-announced plans to build a $112 million data center in Cheyenne. In a blog post earlier this year, Microsoft General Manager of Data Center Services Christian Belady outlined the company’s plans.

Water Treatment Plants as Power Sources

“Water treatment plants are mission critical installations that produce methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than CO2, as the sewage from our communities are broken down in an anaerobic digestion process (decomposition without oxygen),” Belady explained. “Landfills produce methane in a similar way as our garbage slowly decomposes underground. The methane that is produced by both approaches must be flared, converting it to CO2 to minimize the impact on the environment.”

The methane output will be used in a fuel cell supplied by Fuel Cell Energy, which in turn will provide electricity for the servers housed in IT PACs (Pre-Assembled Components), Microsoft’s custom modular data centers, which can house up to 2,000 servers apiece. A small 200 kW prototype data center will offset over two million pounds of CO2 emissions per year, according to Microsoft, which is the equivalent of about 300 Honda Civics being taken off the road.

The Cheyenne proof-of-concept is structured as a public-private partnership, with the state and city providing infrastructure to retool the water treatment plant, which Microsoft provides the fuel cell and servers.

Working With Power Network

Microsoft is also working on power purchase agreements in which it would buy renewable energy, either from a utility or directly from a generation company.

“We have recently signed on as an advisory board member with Altenex, an operator of a network that enables member companies to more efficiently engage with developers of renewable energy projects,” said Janous. “We expect this engagement with Altenex to improve our ability to identify and evaluate cost-effective clean energy projects.”

Janous said the greatest opportunities for innovation and energy savings will be found in new data center developments. “That’s where the greatest opportunities are, if we can integrate with generation at the right source,” he said.

About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor-in-chief of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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2 Comments

  1. Jeff McCloud

    This is the way data centers should be powered for efficiencies of scale!!! Leave it to Microsoft to find the solution! Would not surprise me if they make a ton of money doing this world wide... This is a gigantic market!!! 2.8MW fuel cell using biogas now operating; Largest PPA of its kind in North America http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/news-events/news-archive/2012/october/28-mw-fuel-cell-using-biogas-now-operating-largest-ppa-of-its-kind-in-north-america "New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world's first" http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/orange_county&id=8310315 "It is here today and it is deployable today," said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.

  2. Perhaps Microsoft should look at AFC Energy's Fuel Cells, which apart from having all possible green credentials, have been proven to be the most efficient and cost effective fuel cells in existence.