data centre Microsoft Fortum

Microsoft and Finnish state-owned energy company Fortum will capture the excess heat generated by data centres and use it to warm homes, services and businesses in Helsinki, Finland.

Here’s one innovative partnership at the intersection of two megatrends: clean energy transition and digitalisation. 

It’s no secret that data centres use a lot of energy.

Data storage facilities consume around 200 terawatt hours annually, which according to the Australian Energy Council is more than the energy consumption of some countries (Argentina, Ukraine, Thailand). Their energy use is around one per cent of global electricity demand – equivalent to half of the amount used by transport worldwide.

What you probably didn’t know is that 40 per cent of this massive energy usage goes into cooling. 

In many data centres, the norm is to cool off and remove the heat that IT equipment generates – instead of using it. That’s why many data centres are built in colder regions such as in northern Europe.

Since the energy needed to cool the equipment is so high, there are many environmental and economic benefits to figuring out how to utilise it. 

Microsoft might just have a solution. The multinational technology corporation recently announced a collaboration with Fortum to heat homes, services and businesses with the wasted heat from data centres.

The Finnish state-owned energy company will capture the excess heat generated by a new data centre region in Helsinki, Finland. The data centres will run off 100 per cent emission-free electricity. 

Fortum will transfer the heat generated by the data centre by server cooling processes to heat homes, services and business premises connected to its district heating system. 

This will allow about 60 per cent of the area’s heating to be generated by climate-friendly waste heat, with 40 per cent generated from the data centre. It will reduce Finland’s annual CO2 emissions by around 400,000 tonnes. 

Fortum’s existing district heating system includes around 900 kilometres of underground pipes that transfer heat to about 250,000 properties in the cities of Espoo, Kauniainen and Kirkkonummi. 

District heating is the most popular method of heating premises in nordic countries, which generates and captures heat in hot water and steam, and distributes it on a large scale through pre-insulated underground pipes to buildings and users. 

Fortums district heating serves 90 per cent of the building stock of Stockholm – in comparison to one third of one per cent in North America. 

Image: Nortek

 

The idea of using waste heat from data centres to heat homes is not new, but this concept is unique as the data centre location was chosen specifically with waste heat recycling in mind, and when it’s finished it will be the largest of its kind in the world. Artificial intelligence will optimise the operations of the entire system.  

Some parts of northern Europe (which tech companies prefer due to the cooler climate), already encourage this kind of innovative heating solution. Amazon data centre heat is used to supply heating in Dublin, Ireland. Facebook is heating 6900 homes in Denmark with data waste heat, and in US tech capital of California, it is well on its way to becoming mandatory in its Title 24 Energy Code.

“Developing solutions for the global climate challenge together with partners is a strategic priority for Fortum, and we are proud to embark on this exceptional journey together with Microsoft,” said Markus Rauramo, president and chief executive officer of Fortum.  

“Sometimes the most sustainable solutions are simple ones: By tapping into waste heat from data centres, we can provide clean heat for homes, businesses and public buildings… and reduce about 400,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. 

“This is a significant step for a cleaner world, made possible by our joint ambition to mitigate climate change.”

Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland said she hoped the collaboration could serve as a model to other countries and cities looking for ways to achieve “the double transformation of climate neutrality and digital competitiveness”. 

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