THE FUTURE OF MEGAPROJECTS

how THE INTERNET IS HEATING HOMES

It was winter-time; the air was cold, the wind sharp,
but within the closed doors it was warm and comfortable.

 – Hans Christian Andersen, The Snowdrop

Meta Warms Odense

The same warm and comfortable homes that inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s famous work The Snowdrop in the 19th century are now being kept from the cold winter air by an usual source: the internet. Well, more specifically, Meta. In 2017, Meta (formerly Facebook) announced a 500,000 sq ft data centre campus in Odense. This was not going to be just any data centre – Meta committed to connecting its campus to Odense’s district heating system. The company was proposing to heat Denmark’s third largest city with excess heat energy from its servers. 

So, how does this work in Odense? While construction was underway, insulated steel pipes were installed in the roof of the data centre. These pipes transport excess heat that has travelled through copper coils inside every one of the data centre’s 176 cooling units. Once the cooling water has made its way through these pipes and coils, it is sent to Fjernvarme Fyn’s heat pump facility where it is warmed enough to be useful to the district heating system. This process creates 100,000 MWh of energy per year from waste heat, enough to warm 6,900 homes as well as a local hospital. 

According to Meta, the Odense facility “was located and designed with heat recovery in mind from the outset”. The work of Meta’s engineers and their partner company Fjernvarme Fyn made vast amounts of free heat available to the community while also making good use of the excess energy that has plagued data centres for so long. Not only this, but the data centre itself is supported by 100% renewable energy – something made possible specifically in Odense, where wind projects add more electricity annually to the Nordic grid than Meta’s data centre will consume.

Is this scalable?

First of all, it is worth noting that other companies have employed a similar approach to excess data centre heating. For instance, Switch Data Centres was the first data centre company in Europe to compensate its customers financially for returning residual heat. By utilising Direct Liquid Cooling (DLC) technologies for its servers, the company cools the water that had run through the DLC to between 40 and 60 degrees Celcius before immediately heating homes and offices with it. It is hardly suprising that in 2021 the company won the prestigious Computable Award for ‘Sustainability & Corporate Social Responsibility’. They also proved that this heating method is repeatable. 

The design and operations of data centres themselves is another factor that points towards this energy solution’s scalability. A typical server will need to be replaced every 2-5 years. The fact that they are so easily changeable works in favour for the expansion of this model, as the necessary infrastructure can be installed during these replacement periods. The fact that in recent years this approach has been adopted rapidly in France, New York, Canada and the UK is a testament to this.

There is also a financial angle to the benefits of this model. Mats Nilsson Hahne and Peder Bank (Interxion‘s Head of Business Development and Managing Director of Interxion Norway respectively) make a strong argument for this apsect of the model. “It is not philanthropic” says Hahne. Bank adds that “we are trying to turn it [the sale of excess heat energy to the district system] into a secondary business”. The profits from selling the heat that would otherwise go to waste, alongside free cold water for cooling, is an attractive proposition. 

Of course, the decision to utilise heat in this way is not purely financial. The imperative need to mitigate the impacts of climate change is a vital consideration. When asked why they chose to share the engineering plans for Interxion’s heat-based business model with any data centre company in Stockholm, Hahne explained that “there is a higher purpose to this than competition. A global purpose…We are all living on the same planet.”

Looking ahead

Data centre owners and operators have made a significant breakthrough with this savvy method of repurposing excess heat, a breakthrough that seems even more important as the energy crisis continues around the world. As more companies join the likes of Meta, Switch Data Centres and Interxion, we are excited to keep up with how this method expands in the future.

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Author:

Madeleine Jones Casey

Madeleine Jones-Casey

Content Lead at Foresight Works

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