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Japan’s quest for zero-emission data centers that rely less on air-conditioning is harnessing the world’s oldest cooling system: snow.

To reduce the amount of energy needed to keep computers cool, companies are building data centers in colder regions where they can be cooled naturally, said Masafumi Nojiri, Deputy Director at the Environment Ministry’s Global Environment Bureau. The ministry aims to subsidize 50% of the cost of building zero-carbon data centers or upgrading existing facilities to be more eco-friendly as part of a package of initiatives in the ¥757 billion ($7.3 billion) budget it requested for the next fiscal year.

“Lifestyle changes driven by the coronavirus have resulted in a surge in power use,” he said. “We have to address the issue of data centers, one of the major energy consumers.”

People stuck at home because of the pandemic have turned to Zoom, Netflix and other online platforms, driving up demand for the banks of computers that store information for the internet and run business-critical functions such as file storage and cloud computing. Global web traffic surged by 48% in 2020, driven by growth in streaming video, videoconferencing, online gaming and social networking, according to telecommunications market researcher TeleGeography Inc.

An average rack of servers runs as hot as 40-50 degrees Celsius (104-122 degrees Fahrenheit), according to Naohiro Masunaga, a chief secretariat at the Japan Data Center Council. To keep the devices running properly, the room temperature should be kept between 15-40 Celsius, Masunaga says.

Sakura Internet Inc.'s data center in Ishikari, Hokkaido | KYODO
Sakura Internet Inc.’s data center in Ishikari, Hokkaido | KYODO

The energy used to run the servers and keep them from overheating is considerable. Just one block of a recently built, large data center is estimated to consume up to 40 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 154 Japanese households for a month. Data centers accounted for around 1% of global electricity use in 2019, according to a recent study in the journal Science.

Some Japanese companies are already using snow as a cooling agent, at least for several months a year. DataDock Inc., based in Niigata Prefecture, chills its servers in the city of Nagaoka with snow meltwater and the cold outside air. The annual average temperature in Nagaoka, about 280 kilometers (174 miles) north of Tokyo, is around 12 degrees Celsius and the area is typically dusted in snow from December to February.

During winter, DataDock sets up a four-meter-tall artificial hill to catch snow, according to Kazuki Koyanaka, an operating officer. As the snow gradually melts, it cools antifreeze liquid that is fed through a pipe running through the building. It also plans to reuse the melted snow for a neighboring aquaponics farm cultivating sturgeons and plants.

Further north, Osaka-based internet service provider Sakura Internet Inc. has built a 51,448-square-meter (553,781-square-feet) data center in the city of Ishikari in Hokkaido, where temperatures can plunge to minus 5 degrees Celsius in winter.

Takashi Shishido, an executive officer at the firm, said Ishikari data centers “can be fully operated without backup air conditioners from October through to May, when temperatures stay below 18 degrees Celsius.”

Sakura’s facility uses multiple ventilation systems in ceilings and walls that blow icy Hokkaido air into the computer rooms inside. Heat from the machines is vented out and channeled to systems that keep roads around the facility ice free. Compared to its Tokyo data center, “we reduced power use by around 40% by locating it in a cold climate,” Shishido said.

Tech giants like Google LLC and Facebook Inc. have built data centers that tap Nordic frost. At its facility in the Finnish town of Hamina, Google pipes icy water from the Gulf of Finland to help cool its server rooms. The search giant set a goal of operating 24/7 carbon-free energy in all its data centers worldwide by 2030.

Facebook’s data center in Odense, Denmark, is kept cool by outdoor air “through indirect evaporative and cooling technology and powered by clean and renewable wind energy,” according to a statement on the company’s website. The complex aims to capture 100,000 megawatt hours of heat energy annually from its servers and use it to warm local hospitals and other buildings. Facebook uses a similar cooling system for its data center in Lulea, Sweden, about 68 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

The snow-cooling strategy comes with its challenges. The arrival of spring and summer make it impossible to operate a data center 365 days a year in most places without backup air conditioners. Climate change is also emerging as a wild card, bringing abnormally high temperatures during winter months.

Latency is another drawback. Data centers in remote areas “may experience a slight connection delay due to the distance,” according to Toru Sawamura, an Executive Officer and Operations Department Manager at Sakura Internet.

Still, some Japanese companies are pressing ahead. Kyodo News Digital is preparing to launch a “white data center” with a hybrid cooling system that uses natural air and snow in Bibai, Hokkaido. “The 36,868 square meter facility will cut energy costs related to air conditioning by 54.8% compared to conventional data centers,” said Takahisa Tsuchiya, a director at the city government’s economic bureau. It plans to divert the generated heat to farms.

With the rise of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, 5G and media streaming, the demand for more servers will continue to rise, said George Kamiya, a digital energy analyst at the International Energy Agency. New and more energy-efficient technologies “will be needed to keep pace with growing data demand,” he said.

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