Data center waste energy to heat homes in 'UK-first' scheme

Emergency failure red light in data center with servers. 3D rendered illustration.
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The UK government has announced plans to power homes with data center waste heat as part of a £36 million project. 

The scheme will be run by the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation in the London boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham, Brent and Ealing.

It will serve 10,000 new homes and 250,000m2 of commercial space, as well as a hospital, providing heating and hot water from waste heat from nearby data centers through a local network. 

The data centers involved in the project have not been named.

"Recycling the huge amounts of wasted heat from our local data centers into heat and energy for local residents, a major hospital and other users is an exciting and innovative example of OPDC’s support for the mayor’s net zero ambitions," said David Lunts, chief executive of the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC).

According to project developer OPDC, data centers offer a predictable supply of low grade heat - between 20C and 35C - which is often expelled into the atmosphere. 

Through the new project, this will instead be distributed to a number of energy centers via a plastic 'ambient' network. From there, it will supply heat pumps that raise the temperature - the water will then be piped via a traditional steel network to a mixture of new and existing residential buildings. 

"An enormous amount of stakeholder collaboration and technical expertise has gone into getting us to this point, but 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, buildings and places for Europe and India, at Aecom

While the project is billed as a first for the UK, this is debatable. A small scheme in Exmouth uses waste heat from a data center to heat a nearby public swimming pool. 

Data center waste heat is already used in Europe

The use of data center waste heat to power homes is a technique already used widely in other European countries. In Dublin, a number of public sector buildings are heated by waste heat from an Amazon data center.


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Facebook has a similar project in Denmark, heating nearly 7,000 homes. 

In Finland, Microsoft has teamed up with the country's largest energy company, Fortum, to build a new data center that will provide waste heat via existing water pipes to three nearby towns and cities.

However, using data center waste heat isn't always ideal. In a report this summer from consultancy BCS, data center users, developers, and investors expressed concerns over the practice. 

In particular, respondents warned that there was little evidence to suggest the practice could deliver marked benefits for both operators and nearby real estate holdings. 

"It seems that a significant number of our survey respondents remain skeptical about the current economic viability of such programs," the authors wrote.

Emma Woollacott

Emma Woollacott is a freelance journalist writing for publications including the BBC, Private Eye, Forbes, Raconteur and specialist technology titles.