03-27-13 | Blog Post

Could Wind Farms Power Michigan Data Centers?

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Globally, data centers are seeing increases in their power consumption as well as higher energy costs.

If you combine these factors together, you can understand why CIOs and data center operators are looking to alternative energy resources to reduce energy use and costs.  In addition, there is a movement in the information technology industry to make data centers greener.

Michigan’s geographical location and natural resources offer many positives for data centers such as a cool climate and lack of natural disasters.  But does Michigan offer renewable energy resources that could be used to power data facilities?  According to my research, the answer is yes.

One possible renewable energy resource is wind power.  Although this energy source does not come without some controversy, it does produce clean power without creating pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

What is Wind Power?

Wind power is using the wind to generate mechanical power or electricity, says the U.S. Department of Energy.  Wind turbines convert kinetic energy in the wind into mechanical power.  The wind turbines use the force of moving air to generate electricity by rotating propeller-like blades around a rotor.  The motion of the rotor turns the drive shaft and turns an electric generation.  How Wind Turbines Make Electricity.

How Are Data Centers Using Wind Power?

Several large technology companies like Apple and Google are investing in renewable energy sources like wind to power their data centers.   According to Apple’s website, they have reached their goal of using 100 percent renewable energy at all of their data centers.

Earlier this year, it was discovered that Apple filed for a patent for a unique energy storage system for wind energy.  The Apple Insider reports that the patent describes the technology as converting friction from rotating turbine blades into heat.  The heat is stored in a “low-heat-capacity” fluid so whenever the wind is at a lull, the stored heat can be transferred to a “working fluid” and create steam.  The steam then is directed to a turbine that is connected to a generator.

Since 2010, Google has been making wind power investments including investing in about $200 million dollars in a Texas wind farm.  The 161-megawatt facility has 70 wind turbines producing 2.3 megawatts of power, which is enough energy to power more than 60,000 average U.S. homes.  Google has also worked with utility companies like the Grand River Dam Authority to supply wind-generated power to its Oklahoma data center.

Michigan Has Great Wind Potential

In order to have a successful wind farm, an area has to have an annual average wind speed around 14.5 mph or greater at an 80 meter height.  The wind speed is measured at this height because typically utility-scale wind turbines are installed between 80 and 100 meters height.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and AWS Truewind, LLC research found that some of the strongest on-shore winds are in Michigan’s thumb area measuring around 16 to 18 mph.  This region has seen a number of wind farm projects develop over the years.  DTE Energy has constructed two wind farms in Huron County and one in Sanilac County, both located in Michigan’s thumb region. View map of DTE Energy Wind Farms in Michigan’s Thumb

Michigan - Wind Power
Michigan – Wind Power

There are other regions in Michigan, especially around the Great Lakes, that offers offshore wind power possibilities.  Based on research, offshore wind speeds are around 15.7 mph up to 21.3 mph.  However, wind farm development has been delayed in these regions because of political considerations.

Powering Michigan Data Centers

Although the wind industry has seen a slow in growth due to uncertainties of federal policies, there is still potential for Michigan data centers to use wind energy.  This year the wind industry saw some encouragement when Congress extended a 2.2 cent per kWh production tax credit including an investment tax credit for offshore wind projects.  Without this tax credit, Environment Michigan estimated that new wind-energy construction would drop by 75 percent.

United States Wind Speed
United States Wind Speed

I would encourage Michigan data centers to consider using wind-generated power from Michigan utility companies – a definite win-win situation for Michigan’s economy and environment.  Michigan’s wind energy projects create construction and operation jobs within a region.  Property owners receive additional rent income and Michigan counties/townships receive additional tax revenue from the wind farms and the property owners.  In addition, wind energy minimally impacts the environment and does not add new air or water emissions.

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