One moos and one hums, but they could help power Google

One moos and one hums, but they could help power Google

 While not immediately intuitive, the idea plays on two trends: the building of computing centers in more rural locales, and dairy farmers’ efforts to deal with cattle waste by turning it into fuel.
With the right skills, a dairy farmer could rent out land and power to technology companies and recoup an investment in the waste-to-fuel systems within two years, Hewlett-Packard engineers said. “Information technology and manure have a symbiotic relationship,” said Chandrakant D Patel, director of HP’s sustainable information technology laboratory.

Symbiotic relation
Companies have historically tended to build their large computing centers —  often called server farms — in or near large cities and industries. As this practice has continued over the years, it has become difficult for companies building the largest data centres to find enough cheap electricity and real estate to meet their needs.
The rise of higher-speed data transfer networks, however, has given technology companies a chance to move farther from large populations and still be able to get information to them faster. So companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have been engaged in a mad dash to find spots in the US that have plenty of electricity and land. As a result, more data centres have been built in states like Washington, Texas and Oklahoma. If those locations are near dairy farms, so much the better.
Rather than being an alternative energy convenience, this approach could benefit companies operating in countries like China and India that need to find an economical way to power their computing centres.

Back on the farm, dairy producers have increasingly been looking to deal with their vast collections of smelly cow waste by turning it into something called biogas. To make biogas, a farmer needs to buy specialized equipment that runs the manure through an anaerobic digestion process.

“The average cow makes enough waste per day to power a 100-watt light bulb,” said Michael Kanellos, editor in chief at Greentech Media.
As per HP’s calculations, 10,000 cows could fuel a one-megawatt data centre. Kanellos has tracked both the data centre and green technology industries and agreed that there was some convenient overlap. Computing equipment produces a lot of heat as a waste product and systems needed to create biogas require heat. There is a virtuous cycle of sorts possible.

“The cows will never replace the hydroelectric power used by a lot of these data centres,” Kanellos said. “But there is interest in biogas, and this presents another way to make manure pay.” While many strapped farmers initially tried to create their own biogas plants, they have since found that it’s more economical to sell their manure to a shared biogas producer.

California and Texas could benefit from the manure idea, Costello said, because they have large numbers of dairy cows, ties to the technology industry and centralized biogas centres. California, Wisconsin, New York, Idaho and Pennsylvania were the top dairy producers last year according to the Agriculture Department.

Practical challenges
Still, Costello cautioned that this form of alternative energy faced familiar practical challenges. “This just becomes less enticing as the price of natural gas gets lower,” Costello said. HP has long experimented with ways to operate data centers more efficiently, including having robots that travel around buildings keeping tabs on the temperatures of computers.

It would cost a dairy farmer about $5 million to purchase the equipment needed for the biogas system and $30,000 to run it each year, Patel said.HP has yet to construct its own manure-burning system, but may consider one for data centers in California or Texas, he said. “Stay tuned,” he added. “We are pushing ahead.”
The New York Times