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Data center heat will warm thousands of homes through this innovative project

More than just hot air: waste heat is a problem for data centres, and using it to warm up cold homes could be the answer.

Data center heat will warm thousands of homes through this innovative project
Photo by he gong / Unsplash

Excess heat from data centres is going to be used to heat thousands of new homes across west London.

The project will be the first of its kind in the UK to recycle waste heat from data centres which is then used to supply heating for the local community. The heat network has just won £36 million in government funding, and aims to connect 10,000 new homes and 250,000 square metres of commercial space to this low-carbon energy source.  

The network is located in a new development area called Old Oak West, sitting across the London boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham, Brent and Ealing. The £36 million in funding will support the commercialisation and construction of the district heat network, which is expected to deliver 95GWh of heat between 2026 and 2040.

“We now have a blueprint for an innovative ambient heat network which we hope will provide a template for future developments,” said Jo Streeten, managing director of buildings and places at AECOM, which is designing the heat network.

Heat is a big problem for data centers. Data centres can offer a predictable supply of heat between 20C and 35C created by the racks full of hot servers within. Dealing with the heat that builds up from all those servers can be something of a headache - and a cost - for data centre operators, and sometimes it is simply vented into the atmosphere.

But as a result of this scheme, the wasted heat will instead be distributed to a number of energy centres via a plastic ambient network, where it will supply heat pumps. These raise the temperature of water which is then piped via a traditional steel network to a mixture of new and existing residential buildings and a hospital.

Matthew Basnett, the Association for Decentralised Energy’s heat network policy lead, said: “Heat decarbonisation in buildings is a huge challenge, and one that is often fundamentally misunderstood - heat networks are the only internationally proven route for decarbonising heat at scale, yet most people don’t know what they are.”  

Projects to reclaim the heat from data centers are not entirely new, although they are often found in colder northern European countries. Facebook has had a project running in the Danish city of Odense for several years, projects already exist in Sweden, and Microsoft is working on something similar in Finland.

While with this project data centers might be helping heat homes, the growing number of data centers in west London as also been a problem. Last year the Financial Times reported that new housing projects in some areas were being rejected because the electricity grid was maxed out, and that the power demand from data centres in the neighbourhood was part of the problem.