They can all be used to power the cloud.

A sudden burst of concepts for renewably powered data centers has appeared in tech news lately. Part school science project and part Apollo Project, ideas for how to get data centers to run on renewable energy are proving to be both diverse and creative.

We recently posted a blog on this topic, outlining the environmental and economic reasons for IT companies to instate discriminating site selection policies for their data centers, which would prioritize locations that do not further drive demand for coal and other fossil fuels.

And although we are unfortunately witnessing much new cloud computing infrastructure that touts its energy efficiency but ignores the energy source, such as Facebook’s coal-powered data center in Oregon and eBay’s in Utah, there are now some examples of companies paying greater attention to location and availability of clean energy sources for data facilities. The renewable options that these companies are experimenting with come in a variety of forms.

Cow Power:

Hewlett-Packard recently presented research, which shows how cow manure can be turned into energy to run its data centers. HP concluded that 10,000 dairy cows could power a medium-sized data center. The use of cow dung would save the company on energy costs and cut thousands of metric tons of CO2 through “co-location”, which places power-hungry data centers alongside energy-expelling animals in a waste-to-energy ecosystem.

HP also projects that a cow powered system would save about $2 million per year in energy costs and waste management. But while the company has presented evidence that the technology to run data centers on cow manure is viable, it has yet to build a data center on a dairy farm. Only then will we know that the company’s announcement is more than just B.S.

Volcanic Activity:

In Iceland, a startup called Greenqloud plans to rent space in data centers to cloud computing companies that want to manage their carbon footprint with the country’s nearly 100 percent clean geothermal energy. Greenqloud projects that clean energy will not be sold at a premium in Iceland thanks to the abundance of its cheap, renewable power.

Greenzloud’s CEO, Eirikur Hrafnsson, believes that Iceland can be a hub for international web service operators, which typically have to run separate facilities in the U.S. and Europe. Iceland’s location would offer an in-between solution, and one that’s much better for the environment.

Distributed Energy:

The OZZO project in Amsterdam has developed a concept for a distributed model of data center power generation. The company divides the data stored in data centers into three different categories based on the frequency with which it is accessed and the amount of energy required to manage it.  A unique source of renewable energy —
such as solar, wind, or biomass — is paired with each type of data to make it more efficient and self-sufficient, and to utilize clean, local power.

Independent Renewables:

Next Generation Data, which operates one of the largest data centers in the world, has contracted SmartestEnergy, the UK’s largest purchaser of independently-generated electricity, to supply renewable energy to its 750,000 square foot facility. European companies have been thrust into the renewable energy market by the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme (formerly called the Carbon Reduction Commitment), a mandatory emissions trading scheme that penalizes big emitters.

Concepts Don’t Cut Carbon

While the case studies above are a positive reflection of the increased attention that the IT sector is paying to clean energy for fueling the cloud, most of these examples are concepts or exceptions, not IT reality. So what’s holding the sector back from making a complete shift to green data centers?

Apologists for coal-powered IT would argue that the premium on renewable power is prohibitive for operators when faced with the decision of where to locate and how to power their data centers. But electricity consumption has become one of the largest costs to data center operators, and legislative predictions pose further financial risk to those that currently capitalize on cheap and dirty energy.

Instead of sitting back and blaming the politicians or whining about the price of renewables, the IT sector should be out there advocating for favorable policies and market conditions that can turn their green data center concepts into reality. Only then will cows, volcanoes, sun, and wind be truly able to pick up the charge.

(Photo Credit: Geothermal Factory, Reykjanes, Iceland by Zanthia)