Could data centers someday stand alongside drilling rigs in the Marcellus Shale gas fields? It is an increasing possibility, says an energy expert at an international buildings efficiency firm.

Data centers are sometimes built for the exclusive use of such giants as Google and Facebook, but most of them are intended for hosting companies, which process data for multiple tenants.

Packed with servers, data centers can consume as much electricity for air conditioning as they use for data processing.

A 2011 Analytics Press report, “Growth in Data Center Electricity Use: 2005 to 2010,” estimates that data centers consumed 1.7%-to-2.2% of all U.S. electricity generated in 2010.

Data center companies are evaluating various approaches to easing their energy costs. And it’s rumored that some of them are considering co-locating their facilities on Marcellus Shale gas fields, and buying the gas at potentially wholesale prices.

Jean-Simon Venne, vice president of Energy Efficiency at Montreal-headquartered SMi-Enerpro, says, “I have heard that there have been discussions [on the idea]. On the energy side, there is interest because companies extracting gas could extract a lot more, but the distribution network cannot take any more, and prices are declining.

“For data centers,” Venne continued, “it’s a perfect equation. If they’re located over the fields, they could buy the gas for less than they would pay a distributor, and the land is reasonably priced. You burn the gas in fuel cells to create a lot of electricity, and you’re off the grid, so you’re shielded from any grid problems.”

“Two thirds of the gas you burn,” added Venne, “is released as heat, and you’d shoot [the heat] into combustion chillers, so you do your cooling without adding more electricity to the equation. And, when you do that, you have probably one of the most efficient systems you can think of for a data center.”

Unfortunately, Venne points out, the attraction of cheap energy is usually tempered by the realities associated with its location; for example, the lack of IT experts living in rural regions. And, in areas lacking overhead power lines, there’s the cost of laying fiber optic cable for many miles – along with hefty lease payments for rights-of-way.

Another reality is that far-flung areas wouldn’t work for everyone.

“Sometimes you need the [data center] infrastructure close to the users,” Todd Weller, an internet-and-software-equities analyst for Stifel Nicolaus, a brokerage and investment banking firm, told Breaking Energy.

Weller observed that, “If you’re in financial services, you want your [data center] close by. So, it’s not as simple as saying, ‘I’d like to locate my data center in Iceland because it has the cheapest power.’ A lot of other factors come into play.”

At the same time, Weller noted, demand for data center services remains strong despite the economic slowdown.

The industry “isn’t immune to tough, macro environments, but it also tends to have a fair degree of resiliency,” Weller said. “The growth in video sharing, online gaming and cloud computing continues despite the economic trends. Are people Facebooking any less? Are they posting fewer photos?”

Venne says the relentless, Internet service demands are translating into “rapid” data-center growth. “I’m talking to several players,” he says, “so I know that there are a lot of new projects, but it isn’t easy to put a percentage on that growth.”

Nor is it easy to pin down electricity consumption by data centers. The Analytics Press report on their electricity use says that, after doubling from 2000 to 2005, the growth rate “slowed significantly from 2005 to 2010.”

It also notes that, in a 2007 report to Congress, EPA estimated that data centers consumed 60 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2006. Depending on its scenario assumptions, the agency’s projections for 2010 ranged from 35 billion kWh (in a “state-of-the-art” scenario) to 120 billion kWh (in a “historical trends” scenario).

The author of the Analytics report, Jonathan Koomey, told Breaking Energy that a range bracketing EPA’s “improved operations” scenario represents the most realistic electricity-consumption estimate for 2010: From 67 to 86 billion kWh.

Koomey, a consulting professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, said he expects data-center efficiency to continue increasing.

“They’re wringing out some of the inefficiencies in the old facilities” Koomey said, “and you’re starting to see them implementing institutional changes that clarify the true costs of a data center by bringing together under one supervisor all elements of data center operations.

“Previously,” Koomey continued, “you had the facilities department paying electric bills, and the IT department would bring in additional servers without much interest in energy use or costs. But that’s slowly changing. Plus, a lot of companies like Apple and Google and Microsoft are working on ways to source low-carbon electricity. It’s become part of their culture because these are consumer-facing companies.

“Of course, they also work with businesses,” Koomey added, “but they have an enormous consumer footprint. So, they’re taking steps to reduce the emissions associated with the electricity used at their data centers.”

Microsoft is developing plans to build a data center on the site of a biogas source, such as a landfill or a wastewater treatment plant. And Apple was recently granted a permit to build for its Maiden, NC data center a 4.8 MW fuel cell, which will reportedly use both biogas and conventional gas.

It remains to be seen if Marcellus gas will one day flow directly into data-center fuel cells. But the economics and production trends in those fields suggest that the idea is potentially viable.

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