A city in Japan is using snow-cooled servers to keep the equipment that supports the global digital economy from fueling the climate crisis.
White Data Center is located in the city of Bibai, on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. This is where the snow-cooled servers “live”.
At WDC, the snow is collected and placed in an isolated mound outside the building. The heat captured from the servers slowly melts the snow, and the water cools the pipes containing the antifreeze, which then flows around the data center through an air conditioning system, maintaining temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius.
“The temperature range is controlled by combining the coldness of the snow and the heat emitted by the IT equipment to keep the temperature at the right level throughout the year,” says WDC director Kota Honma.
The number of data centers around the world continues to grow to keep up with the growth of streaming, cloud-based gaming and cryptocurrency mining. But they typically use a lot of energy and are already responsible for about 1 percent of global energy demand, according to the International Energy Agency.
Bibai’s snow-cooled servers
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, it has reduced the data center’s cooling costs by 55 percent. Now a commercial entity, WDC hopes to attract business from Tokyo’s data centers.
“WDC is always air-conditioned using only 100% natural energy, without using electric cooling or thermal fuels. Compared to the cost of renting server racks in Tokyo, we believe we can offer them lower maintenance costs,” Honma told CNN Business.
Where does the data center get its coolant from?
There is a long-standing relationship between snow and the economy of northern Japan. Bibai, about 1,000 kilometers north of Tokyo, gets 8-10 meters of snow a year and spends 400 million yen ($2.9 million) to collect and remove it.
“Snow is considered a nuisance by residents… but it can actually be useful,” says Honma.
About 200,000 tons of snow is collected from the streets of Bibai every year, and the city authorities work 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 covered with wood chips and soil. Storing the “free” cold energy that falls from the sky is a “chicken-brained” idea as a business opportunity, says Takahisa Tsuchiya, executive director of Bibai City’s economic department.
“We always say we should change our view and make the snow work for us,” he adds.
Greenhouse heated by servers
Snow-cooled servers are only one piece of the data center energy puzzle. Heat from the servers is used to heat the air and water in an adjacent greenhouse, where the company grows mushrooms and has tested other products, including komatsuna, coffee beans, abalone and sea urchins. It is also hoped that this will become the first commercial eel farm in Hokkaido.
The global data center cooling market is expected to reach more than $12 billion by 2027, according to market research firm Arizton, and some big tech companies are addressing this by setting up shop in the Nordics.
Snow-cooled servers are just one option
Facebook’s server center in Odense, Denmark, is kept cool using outside air and hopes to reuse the heat in local hospitals. Google has a data center in Finland that uses ocean water pipes to cool servers, with the goal of achieving zero carbon emissions in its data centers by 2030.
However, when it comes to reducing energy consumption, some experts say it’s more important to focus on the data these servers handle. Mining cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin requires massive amounts of electricity.
“Renewable and sustainable power and cooling systems are a second, but far less optimal, solution,” says Paul Brody, principal blockchain lead at Ernst & Young.
The advantage of data centers, Brody adds, is that they bring computer operations together under one roof, rather than dispersing them across multiple locations. “I’m 100% for snow-cooled servers and other low-impact data centers, whether you have Bitcoin in them or not,” he says.