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Tina Casey headshot

Microsoft Dips a Toe in Wastewater-to-Energy

Microsoft has been pushing the green data center trend for a number of years  and now the company is ready to embark on its first zero carbon data center. In a blog post earlier this week, Microsoft laid out its plans for a demonstration waste-to-energy project that will process wastewater (aka sewage) into biogas. The biogas will provide all the power needed for a new data center called the Data Plant, enabling it to operate entirely off the grid.

Microsoft's mission is to use the Data Plant not only to advance its own green agenda, but to help develop a best practices model for the entire industry. That may seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which says that renewable energy is generally intermittent and is therefore not as reliable as fossil fuels. However, Microsoft has a great answer for that.

How is a wastewater treatment plant like a data center?

Microsoft Senior Research Program Manager, Sean James, authored the blog post and he makes the point that wastewater is as reliable as any other source of energy on the planet:

"In a sense, wastewater treatment plants can be considered distant cousins of data centers - they are mission-critical facilities with high availability infrastructure built into the plant. These plants cannot go offline any more than a community can stop flushing. The result ensures a very consistent and reliable flow of biogas to power our Data Plant."

Microsoft's ultra-green data plant

The $5.5 million Data Plant project will be located at the Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It will be tiny compared to Microsoft's other facilities, at only 200 kilowatts. However, that will be enough to provide the company and its research partners with lessons learned for building a much larger operation.

One critical feature of the Data Plant will be its use of a direct biogas source. Microsoft believes that this is the first integrated facility of its type.

By way of comparison, Apple's North Carolina data center will use biogas indirectly, by purchasing offsets. The facility also may have the potential to use biogas piped in from other sites.

When the pilot project is complete, Microsoft will donate the entire Data Plant to Cheyenne and the University of Wyoming. The biogas operation is expected to yield more energy than the Data Plant can use, and the excess energy will continue to go back to the wastewater plant to offset its energy costs.

Green data centers and the ultimate sustainability twofer

Getting back to Mr. James's "distant cousins" analogy, until recently the management of biological waste from both humans and animals has been presented as one of the most vexing conundrums for sustainability.

However, a growing number of projects like the Data Plant are turning the issue on its head by mining biological waste for energy, just like any other fuel source.

Livestock biogas operations are also becoming more commonplace in agriculture, thanks in part from a push by the Obama Administration through the AgStar program.

At the other end of the scale, a Welsh company called Streetkleen has come up with an idea for miniaturized waste-to-biogas stations that can be installed at dog parks. The stations will serve as an awareness-raising tool for a larger dog waste collection network envisioned by the company.

[Image: Toilet-powered computer? By Artnow314, flickr]

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey



Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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