One Person’s Trash is Another’s Treasure: Reusing Heat Energy in the Data Center
The expression “there’s gold in them hills” can be applied to data centers in an unexpected area: the heat energy the infrastructure produces. Excessive heat is generally considered a bad thing for a data center’s hardware, so it’s typical to build server racks with comprehensive cooling functionality. In most cases, the heat gets released outside in one way or another, but that heat could be used to provide energy for other purposes and reduce the overhead cost of operation. According to Data Center Knowledge, data centers end up releasing upwards of 98 percent of utilized electricity as low-grade heat energy.
Applying Heat Reuse to Data Centers
The process is pretty straightforward: move the hot air or water from the data center to another location and that location uses the heat energy for another job. Once the system is working, it provides a very cheap source of energy. The central problem with data center heat energy for reuse is it comes out at a relatively low temperature between 80 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit, so it doesn’t make it a good candidate for converting back into electricity.
Some data centers work around this problem by amplifying the temperature output with a heat pump. This method uses the data center output to preheat refrigerant so another heat-producing system can reach desired temperatures more efficiently. The next problem comes from transporting the heat which involves expensive ductwork or pipes. Answering what to do with the heat relies on what else is located in the vicinity of the data center. The heat can be productively used to do things like heat a swimming pool, power a climate change experiment arboretum, heat a greenhouse, and provide a HVAC solution for an office building.
Ideas in Action
Data centers that share building use with other business operations can take advantage of the reusable heat easily. Intel uses the heat it produces from one of its data centers to heat the rest of the building. Since developing heat-transfer infrastructure is expensive, areas that have existing infrastructure can help reduce the associated costs.
Seattle plans to rework an old direct heating system, one that generates heat for several buildings from a centralized location, so that it can generate heat from a data center. Some systems use the data center heat as one step of a larger process. For example: Washington State University uses a heat-transfer system from its data center to heat buildings on campus. This system is designed to use the data center heat to pre-heat water before it enters the boiler to reduce how much energy is required to get the water to higher temperatures.
Whether your business is building a new data center or looking at ways to reduce costs on an existing one, reusing heat energy is a potential avenue too beneficial to avoid consideration.
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