Monday, May 24, 2010

Tech’s Moo Poo Buy Plan

The Internet is fast on its way to become an insatiable user of electricity and producer of heat. No, not the Internet you think of as vast expanses of fiber optic cables spanning the globe. It’s all the equipment that makes those cables glow with infrared light, serves up the information on that Information Superhighway, and provides the glowing screens we all stare at for most of the day. The Internet is like a vampire on the prowl for new power sources to tap. Now it’s after our livestock.

Cows have what it takes to power the Internet.Relax. Your hamburger is not at risk. Nor is your milk. The Internet is only after electrical power. It’s the huge server farms run by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and now Amazon that are fast running out of places to plug-in and suck gigawatts. Their traditional sources of coal, nuclear and hydro are becoming tapped out. Their eyes now turn to a less conventional source of power generation that’s brown and round. Pi R Squared? No, pie are powerful. That’s cow pie we’re talking about.

This is where server farms meet dairy farms. One is hungry for resources and the other has certain resources that it needs to get rid of. There’s synergy to be had by getting together according to a recent report. The idea is that a farm’s animal waste, and there’s plenty of it, can be converted into power to run a nearby data center. The waste is consumed in the process and good riddance. The bio-energy stored in the animal dung is turned into electrical power to run sophisticated equipment that makes our Internet experience possible. The lowest tech resource imaginable can enable the highest technology available.

Turning waste into electricity has been around awhile, and it’s becoming more in vogue all the time. Many landfills are now being tapped for the methane gas that results from decomposition deep in the pile. That gas is burned in a turbine engine to efficiently generate energy for years, even decades. A similar principle is used to convert animal droppings into biogas. Once the methane has been liberated, it can run a gas turbine engine just like they have at the landfill.

NativeEnergy has sponsored a number of what they call “Remooable Energy” programs to install manure digesters on family dairy farms. These projects typically take the waste of hundreds of cows and turn them into hundreds of kilowatts. It’s independent small scale renewable energy production. But thousands of servers need tens of thousands of cows to produce enough smelly stuff to generate the megawatts required by a modern data center. Who’s got that many cows?

Factory farms do for sure. Groups of family farms can also have the required threshold of animals needed to make this system work on a commercial scale. That argues for regional facilities that would have both the power plant and data center on-site. Colocation means no transmission costs or resistive power loses. The rejected heat from the power plant can be recycled to support the anaerobic digestion process. It’s neat and efficient and very, very green.

You wouldn’t think that cow pies would be worth much, but the day is coming when power plants will pay for poo. Lumber mills used to pay to have their sawdust hauled away. Now they get paid by companies that turn sawdust into pellets for wood burning stoves. Nobody burns tires anymore. They’re too valuable for recycling to recover the rubber and even the oil content. As electrical demand begins to exceed supply, farmers may find competing bioenergy companies fighting to buy their manure. How ironic it will be when dung is powering the mail servers that bring so much dung to your inbox.

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