Data Centers Looking to capture heat


Last updated 1/26/2023 at 12:55pm

Coupled with rapid growth of data centers we rely upon for internet service and information storage is an increased demand for electricity to power millions of computers and cool the mammoth buildings in which they operate.

Data center computers are integral to our everyday life and store everything from cooking recipes to complex engineering blueprints. They are heavy power users consuming 10-50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office.

Energy inflation combined with the closure of nuclear, coal and natural gas powered plants is causing a shift from more reliable electricity production to interruptible generation which depends more on sunshine and wind. Not only do we have to make up for loss of generating capacity but the skyrocketing demand for electricity.

Worldwide ,there are 8,000 data centers which consume 3% of electricity. Today, it is more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours annually — the equivalent output of roughly 34 coal-powered power plants.

Data center electricity demands are straining the power gird just as utilities ramp up for an avalanche of electric vehicles and replacing natural gas with electric appliances in residential and commercial structures.

The competition for electricity will only increase.

The U.S. has more than 2,700 centers — more than the combined total of Germany, England, China, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Japan, and France. In the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) there are roughly 100.

To spur this conversion, national and local governments from France to Denmark have introduced tax incentives and some making recapturing waste heat a requirement for new building permits

Closed heating systems, called “district heating,” are popular in Europe. Rather than venting low-pressure steam, it is piped into neighboring buildings and homes. The problem is data centers temperatures are too low.

Data centers in proximity to district heating systems could provide as much as roughly 50 terawatt-hours a year of excess heat, according to a study from ReUseHeat.

Meta Platforms Inc. has been recovering excess heat from its data center in Odense, Denmark, since 2020. The Facebook parent is currently expanding that base, with plans to provide enough excess heat to warm about 11,000 homes.

According to Schechner in the past year, Inc., Apple Inc., and Microsoft Corp. have started connecting, or announced plans to connect, major data centers to district heating systems in Ireland, Denmark, and Finland.

High electric rates and Russia’s curtailment of natural gas supplies triggered Europeans to accelerate ways to cut energy costs.

By comparison, Germans pay 33.5 cents per kWh while our national average is 11.1 cents. (Washington has the seventh lowest rate of 8.75 cents).

Even though our electricity is cheaper, we need to look closely at the transformation occurring at Europe’s data centers. While Washington is well position for growth, costs for power is increasing and we are already stretching our electricity grid.

— Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He can be contacted at [email protected].


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