White Data Center: How Japan’s Snow Could Reduce Data’s Carbon Footprint

Bibai, on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, and its white data center have turned to snow.

At the WDC, snow is collected and piled into an isolated mound outside the building. Heat captured by its servers slowly melts snow and water cools pipes containing antifreeze, which then circulates around the data center through an AC system, keeping temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) .

“The temperature range is controlled by combining the cold of snow and the heat of IT exhaust heat to keep the temperature at the right level all year round,” says WDC director Kota Honma.

The number of data centers around the world continues to grow, to keep up with the rise of streaming, cloud gaming and cryptocurrency mining. But they are generally energy-intensive and are already responsible for around 1% of global energy demand, according to the International Energy Agency.

Bibai data center began experimenting with snow in 2014 with a grant from Japan New Energy and Industrial Technology Organization (NEDO), and according to Honma, has reduced data center cooling costs by 55%. Now a commercial entity, WDC hopes to attract businesses from the Tokyo-based data centers.

“WDC is always air-conditioned using only 100% natural energy, without using electrical cooling or thermal fuels,” Honma told CNN Business. “Compared to the cost of renting [server] racks in Tokyo, we believe we can offer them lower maintenance costs.”

Use the power of snow

There is a long-standing relationship with snow and the economy of northern Japan. Bibai, about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) north of Tokyo, sees between eight and 10 meters of snow a year and spends 400 million yen ($2.9 million) plowing and dumping it. “This is considered a nuisance to residents…and it could actually be put to good use,” Honma says.

About 200,000 tons of snow are flushed from the streets of Bibai each year, and city officials partner with WDC to deliver some of that snow to its data center. With the additional cooling capacity, the goal is to grow the center from 20 server racks to 200.

During the summer months, the snow mound is insulated with a cover of woodchips and earth. Storing “free” cold energy falling from the sky is a no-brainer as a business opportunity, says Takahisa Tsuchiya, executive director of Bibai City’s economic department. “We always say that we have to change our point of view and make sure that the snow is on our side,” he adds.

Snow cooling is only one piece of the data center energy puzzle. Heat from servers is used to heat air and water in an adjacent greenhouse, where the company grows mushrooms and has tested other produce including spinach with Japanese mustard, coffee beans, abalone and sea urchins. It also hopes to become the first commercial eel farm in Hokkaido.

Catering to big energy pigs

The global data center cooling market is expected to reach more than $12 billion by 2027, according to market research firm Arizton, and some major tech companies have already cooled down with cool temperatures by setting up shop in the Nordic countries.
Facebook (Facebook) installing servers in Odense, Denmark, keeps the building cool with outside air and hopes to reuse the heat in local hospitals. Google (GOOGL) has a data center in Finland using pipes with seawater to cool servers, aiming to achieve zero carbon emissions in its data centers by 2030.
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Yet when it comes to reducing power consumption, some experts say it’s more important to focus on the data these vast servers are processing. Mining cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, for example, requires huge amounts of electricity.

“Renewable and sustainable power and cooling systems are a second, but much less optimal solution,” says Paul Brody, senior blockchain manager at Ernst & Young.

The advantage of data centers, Brody adds, is that they consolidate IT operations under one roof instead of dispersing them across multiple sites. “I’m 100% in favor of snow-cooled data centers and other low-impact data centers, whether you have Bitcoin there or not,” he says.


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