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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Wastewater Sourced Methane Powers New Wyoming Data Center

Leigh Paterson
Inside Energy
This Microsft Data Center uses power produced from methane in a fuel cell to power its servers that are connected to the Internet.

An experimental Microsoft Data Plant in Cheyenne, Wyoming is the first data center in the country to be powered solely by a wastewater treatment plant next door. Or more specifically, off the methane emitted by what goes down our toilets and sinks.

It sounds a bit gross, but there is a good reason why Microsoft and other tech companies are experimenting with unusual ideas when it comes to powering data centers: Because they use and waste massive amounts of electricity.

Every time you check Facebook or send an email, or do almost anything online, that information is stored and processed by one of the nearly three million data centers in the U.S. In order to do so, these servers remain on, even when not in use, so that they can be accessed at a moment's notice.

According to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, data centers consumed an estimated 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2013 - enough electricity to power all the households in New York City for two years. That's triple the energy that data centers consumed in 2000. Looking ahead, the NRDC projects usage will go up by more than 50 percent by 2020.

The root of the problem is that most of these facilities run off the same electrical grid that we all use, which is powered largely by fossil fuels. To top it all off, most data centers get their backup power from large diesel generators. So the Cheyenne, Wyoming Microsoft Data Plant is trying something greener.

They've turned to human waste.

"Our job is to remove everything that goes down the drain or down the toilet out of the water," said Clint Bassett of the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities. "We mimic Mother Nature with some biologic processes as well as some physical processes to clean the water."

Methane is byproduct of the water treatment, Bassett explained, and in turn is then fed to a fuel cell that generates the electricity for the Microsoft Data Plant. It is part of a small but growing experimental trend. In North Carolina, for example, an Apple data center runs off methane emitted by a landfill. Hewlett-Packard has looked into doing the same with cow manure. Microsoft believes that one day these facilities could be scattered or stacked at methane-emitting sites all over.

Sudeep Pasricha, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Colorado State University studying efficiency and reliability in data centers, explained that until recently companies have not had much incentive to clean up their energy usage. There is no government agency that tracks them and they are not required to disclose their electricity consumption. Within the industry, however, attitudes toward the importance of going green are changing.

"And that is essentially a kind of a stakeholder push," Pasricha said. "So people who are on the managing board or even customers of companies are now demanding that the services they consume do not have a massive environmental impact."

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.

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