Bibai, in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, and its White Data Center have turned to snow.
At WDC, snow is collected and piled up in an insulated mound outside the building. Heat captured from its servers slowly melts the snow, and the water cools pipes containing antifreeze — which then flows around the data center via an AC system, keeping temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).
“Temperature range is controlled by combining the coldness of snow and the warmth of IT exhaust heat to keep the temperature at the right level all year round,” says WDC director Kota Honma.
The Bibai data center began experimenting with snow in 2014 with a grant from Japan’s 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 business from Tokyo-based data centers.
“WDC is always air-conditioned using only 100% natural energy, without using electric cooling or thermal fuels,” Honma tells CNN Business. “Compared to the cost of renting [server] racks in Tokyo, we think we can offer them lower maintenance costs.”
Using the power of snow
There is a long-standing relationship with snow and Northern Japan’s economy. Bibai, about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) north of Tokyo, sees between eight to 10 meters of snow per year and spends 400 million yen ($2.9 million) plowing and dumping it. “This is considered a nuisance for residents … and it could actually be put to good use,” says Honma.
During the summer months, the snow mound is insulated with a covering of wood chips and dirt. 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 should change our point of view and make the snow be on our side,” he adds.
Snow cooling is only one piece of the data center’s energy puzzle. Heat from the servers is used to warm air and water in an adjacent greenhouse, where the company is growing mushrooms and has tested other products including Japanese mustard spinach, coffee beans, abalones and sea urchins. It’s also hoping to become the first commercial eel farm in Hokkaido.
Catering to big energy hogs
“Renewable and sustainable power and cooling systems are a second but far less optimal solution,” says Paul Brody, principal blockchain leader at Ernst & Young.
The upside of data centers, Brody adds, is that they aggregate computer operations under one roof instead of dispersing them across several locations. “I’m 100% in favor of snow-cooled and other low-impact data centers, regardless of whether or not you have Bitcoin in them,” he says.