Excess data center heat is no longer a bug -- it’s a feature!

A small town in Norway is experimenting with using heat generated by a new data center to warm homes and businesses.

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Every data center admin knows that dealing with excess heat is one of the biggest, most expensive factors involved in running a modern data center.

For decades, engineers have been looking for new ways to mitigate the issue, and now Norway is building a brand-new town designed to turn the problem into an opportunity to lower costs, reduce energy usage, and fight climate change.

Hug your servers ... to stay warm

According to Fast Company, the town of Lyseparken, now under construction near Bergen, Norway, is being built to use the excess heat generated by a new data center in the heart of the community to keep a nearly 6.5 million square feet of nearby planned business and office space—and eventually up to 5,000 homes—warm. It works like this:

“In the design for the new data center at Lyseparken, instead of fans, a liquid cooling system will send extra heat to a district heating system, which connects to businesses in the area, heating each building via the floor. The liquid loses heat as it travels, so the buildings that need heat most are located closest to the data center. Eventually, the liquid is cool enough that it can loop back to the data center to cool it down—and as that happens, it heats up again to start the process over.”

Ideally, the plan will lower power bills for everyone, from the data center itself to the businesses warmed by the system.

Of course, there are a number of issues to resolve before this approach, sometimes referred to as The Spark, to work beyond test cases like Lysesparken. For one thing, building and running all this extra plumbing isn’t free, and economic viability of the concept will likely depend on a careful balance of construction costs and variable energy prices.

The Spark data center plan

Developed by MIRIS in cooperation with architecture firm Snøhetta, Skanska, Asplan Viak, and Nokia, The Spark also requires urban data centers to be built in close proximity to the buildings hoping to use the excess heat. These kinds of urban locations may further increase costs and put practical limitations on the size of data centers that can take advantage of the concept. While smaller data centers are increasingly popular, they may not be able to achieve the economies of scale enjoyed by the largest facilities, which can run into the millions of square feet.

In addition, depending on the time of day, the weather, and other factors, the heat generated by the data center may not always precisely match the needs of the surrounding community, either generating more heat than the local homes and businesses need, or requiring them to get additional heat from other sources.

That’s why the Lyseparken implementation includes a stake in the local power company, Fast Company said, and will “produce and consume electricity from a mix of renewable sources, including solar and thermal energy. The data center… will buy solar energy from the power company, and then sell heat back.” Clever, but also complex in terms of both technology and business arrangements.

Still, innovative approaches like The Spark may point the way to the future of the data center in an increasingly energy constrained, cost conscious, and cloud-centric world.

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