"Imagine the heat that your laptop generates, but multiplied across an entire warehouse"
As you navigate the World-Wide Web, have you ever considered it could heat your home? How is that possible? A recent article published in BBC explores this topic in detail below.
“The cloud” is a real place. The pictures you post on Instagram, the happy birthday wishes you leave on Facebook pages, and the TV shows you stream on Netflix aren’t living in a nebulous ball of condensation in the sky. They live on a massive series of servers – all connected together in rows and towers in giant warehouses.
Few people have ventured into these data centers. But in the Swedish capital Stockholm, I went inside these information labyrinths, and discovered that they’re not just housing data. All the heat they give off is helping to warm homes in the city of over 900,000 people. How does it work? And could it create a new business model for the tech industry worldwide?
Cities across the world are figuring out how to use wasted heat from data centres as bonus energy (Credit: Ericsson)
Inside the labyrinth
Walking through a data center you notice a few things. The air is cool and dry. And there’s not a dust bunny to be found. The rows of server towers are covered in thousands of blinking lights and there are rarely any people. Everywhere you look across the ceiling and underneath the removable floor tiles are masses of cables running in every direction.
But most of all, it’s really loud. That’s because computers get hot – and it takes a lot of fans to keep them cool enough to operate properly. Imagine the heat that your laptop generates, but multiplied across an entire warehouse: thousands of computers all connected together running non-stop, doing complicated tasks, 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
Cooling mostly involves cold water and a lot of fans blowing cool air in and sucking hot air out. The heat is usually tossed out as waste.
But heat is energy. That’s why Sweden decided to use it to heat people’s homes.
In Stockholm, the project is called Stockholm Data Parks and it runs in partnership with the city’s government, Fortum Värme (the local heating and cooling agency), and others. Various major Stockholm data centers take part, and the number is growing as more businesses look to bolster climate conscious reputations, and make money from a new business model. Recently, the program announced partnerships with data centers run by major international businesses Ericsson (a builder of cellular networks that also helps broadcast BBC TV channels) and clothing retail chain H&M.
Data centres, stark warehouses full of cables, give off a lot of heat that's being used to warm homes (Credit: Ericsson)
Here’s how it works most of the time in Stockholm: cold water feeds through pipes into the data center, where it’s used to create the cold air they blow on their servers to keep them from overheating. The water, which has been heated by the cooling process, then runs back out of the pipes and into Fortum’s plants where it is distributed for heating.
Sweden isn’t the only country to embrace this idea. It’s happening in small-scale projects in places like Finland, where one data center's heat has been used to warm homes in a small city since last year. There are also programs in the US, Canada, and France.
But Sweden’s decision to scale it up to this size across the country is an unprecedented experiment.
Stockholm Data Parks is expecting to generate enough heat to warm 2,500 residential apartments by 2018, but the long term goal is to meet 10% of the entire heating need of Stockholm by 2035.
According to Data Centres By Sweden – which is launching Stockholm-like projects across the country – only 10 MW of energy is needed to heat 20,000 modern residential apartments. The typical Facebook data center, for example, uses 120 MW.
One of the main incentives for companies to join the program in Stockholm is financial – they get to sell their waste heat. Fortum also provides free cold water for their cooling.
At Interxion, a company whose data centers support mobile gaming apps and other cloud-based software, the cost/benefit analysis was so promising that they’re building a whole new facility for heat capture. “It’s not philanthropic,” says Mats Nilsson Hahne, the company’s head of business development. Quite the contrary, says Peder Bank, managing director of the company's Nordic arm, “We’re trying to turn it into a secondary business.”