Microsoft, which recently completed testing an underwater data centre off the coast of Scotland, says it could be possible to make them greener by powering them with electricity from offshore wind
Data centres use huge amounts of power. According to Nature, they already use an estimated 200 terawatt hours (TWh) each year, so green energy is needed to power them and reduce their environmental impact.
In ‘Project Natick’, Microsoft has been testing whether an underwater data centre is feasible and if so, what its advantages might be.
The company recently retrieved a data centre the size of a shipping container from the seabed off the Orkney Isles in Scotland after a years-long effort that proved that underwater data centres are feasible, and an environmentally and economically attractive solution.
The Northern Isles data centre was installed at a depth of 35 m in Q2 2018. For the next two years, the company monitored its performance.
As related in a Microsoft Innovations story, the company hypothesised that a sealed container on the seabed could improve the reliability of data centres. That is because, on land, corrosion from oxygen and humidity, temperature fluctuations and physical interactions can lead to equipment failure. The Northern Isles deployment confirmed their hypothesis.
Lessons learned from Project Natick are also informing Microsoft’s data centre sustainability strategy, said Microsoft’s special projects research group project manager Ben Cutler, who leads the project. “Our failure rate in the water is one-eighth of what we see on land,” Mr Cutler said.
According to Microsoft, other lessons learned from Project Natick are already informing conversations about how to make data centres use energy more sustainably.
The company said the Orkney Isles was selected for the Northern Isles deployment in part because the grid there is supplied 100% by wind and solar energy. “We have been able to run really well on what most land-based data centres consider an unreliable grid,” said Microsoft. As a result, Mr Cutler is already thinking of co-locating an underwater data centre with an offshore windfarm.
Even in light winds, said Microsoft, there would be enough power for the data centre and, if required, a powerline from shore could be bundled with the fibre optic cabling needed to transport data to land. Energy storage co-located with the data centre could be another option.