The news last week that managed hosting specialist Rackspace is to open a state of the art datacentre running on power generated from burning woodchips may seem to some like evidence that the burgeoning green IT movement has finally taken leave of its luddite senses. But if some environmentalists are to be believed Rackspace's plans for a genuinely low carbon datacentre could provide a template for how growing numbers of businesses source their energy as we transition towards a low carbon economy.
Under its new plans Rackspace has committed to building a data centre at a site in Slough that not only makes use of the latest energy efficient hardware and software, but also sources all its energy from the local Slough Heat & Power biomass energy station, which generates hot water and electricity for local businesses by burning wood chips and fibre cubes made from used paper and cardboard. Any excess power the plant generates is then sold back to the national grid.
According to Slough Heat & Power this energy is extremely "low carbon" as the CO2 released when the woodchips are burnt was absorbed out of the atmosphere as the trees grew. The combined heat and power (CHP) plant is also highly efficient, as unlike conventional power stations the heat generated from producing electricity is captured and used to provide steam or hot water.
Jacques Greyling, managing director of Rackspace in Europe, Middle East and Africa, said that the 100,000 square feet site should be able to gain 90 percent of its energy from the local power station while a connection to the grid and onsite diesel generators will provide back up in the event of a power outage.
He also claimed that the power was no more expensive than that sourced from the grid and that the new facility would both appeal to customers increasingly interested in reducing their own carbon footprint and mitigate the risk of future legislation governing the energy consumption of datacentres.
The use of a local biomass-fired power station sidesteps the problems of reliability typically associated with more high profile means of microgeneration such as solar panels and wind turbines, which are not only costly but are often worse than useless for supporting mission critical systems such as those found in datacentres because of their inability to guarantee a constant supply of power.
It is a model that many environmentalists would like to see adopted on a wider scale. In his recent book Heat – How to Stop the Planet Burning radical journalist George Monbiot explores the viability of CHP systems and assesses how biomass and, on a larger scale, hydrogen powered CHP facilities capable of powering individual sites or local energy grids could potentially play a role in enhancing the efficiency of electricity generation and reducing the UK's carbon footprint.
At first glance the idea of Rackspace's wood-fired datacentre may look like a rather primitive solution for reducing the firm's carbon footprint, but in fact CHP plants represent one of the more technically feasible sources of clean energy and it would be no surprise to see growing numbers of firms and business estates investigating how this model could also work for them.