Data center and district heating: an outstanding combination

The convergence of data centers and district heating marks a pivotal advancement towards economies where sustainability and cost-efficiency are priorities.

In fact, the merging of data centers and district heating represents a crucial development in the current context: at a time where the growth of digitalization and the need for an energy transition are paramount.

In the age of big data, the rapid construction of data centers worldwide is a necessity. However, the massive energy requirements of data centers don’t go unnoticed, and could underscore the significance of energy efficiency and sustainable practices if not addressed. This is precisely where the concept of green data centers takes centerstage. 

At the same time, efforts to mitigate climate change have meant more and more successful initiatives in urban centers to switch to sustainable heating. In fact, according to IEA estimates, worldwide, around 40% of households require space heating during part of the year. 

Heat pumps and district heating adoption have made a turning point for efficiency improvements in heating around the world and marking decisive moves away from fossil fuels. 

Now, the integration of data centers and district heating marks a new milestone towards maximizing energy efficiency. What’s more, this option represents a key example of embracing circular economy frameworks in an approach that not only mitigates environmental impact but also fosters economic resilience and resource security.

To reuse heat emitted by data centers and use it as a heat source for district heating: the premise is simple and, nonetheless, revolutionary. Let’s take a closer look into how waste heat from data centers can be employed in district heating.

Nueva llamada a la acción

Data centers and energy efficiency: a shift in narratives

The IEA provides key insights into the need for energy efficiency in data centers: while internet traffic has tripled in the past 5 years, 90% of data in the world were generated only in the past two years. 

As the backbone of modern digital infrastructure, data center implementation is booming. At the same time, data centers consume vast amounts of electricity to power servers, cooling systems, and other equipment, an issue that has made data center efficiency a critical necessity today. In fact, public authorities have pointed towards the necessity to develop green data centers, including official initiatives at an European level.

Addressing data center cooling best practices and energy sourcing has been a priority in recent years. This has taken many forms: from optimizing server utilization, to implementing advanced cooling technologies and adopting renewable energy sources. 

In this effort, factors such as water use, scalability, costs (initial and operational), flexibility and maintenance have been taken into account. In this context, innovative solutions such as liquid cooling have opened important pathways for the future.

However, the issue of integrating data centers and district heating goes beyond this perspective, and presents a major shift in narratives.

While energy consumption remains a key priority, the possibility for heat capture and reutilization presents an opportunity to integrate data centers into truly sustainable heating infrastructure where wasted energy is a thing of the past.

The benefits of integrated data centers and district heating

By capturing and repurposing excess heat generated by data centers, integration with district heating systems improves overall energy efficiency for both infrastructures. This, in turn, translates into the following benefits:

Sustainability benefits

  • Carbon-neutral data centers where CO2 carbon footprints are majorly diminished. Simply put, employing excess heat for district heating can displace the use of fossil fuels or other less sustainable heat sources.
  • An opportunity to develop circular economy models with zero waste at their core. Heat reuse from data centers optimizes resource utilization, making use of a byproduct that would otherwise be wasted. This aligns with circular economy principles by maximizing the value extracted from resources.

Economical benefits

  • District heating systems benefit from lower operating costs when integrating with data centers, as they can access heat at a reduced or even zero cost. In fact, waste heat could offer a cheaper option than other sustainable choices for district heating (compared to geothermal heat, for instance).
  • The sale of heat surplus creates new business pathways for data centers.
  • Integrating data centers with district heating systems can enhance the resilience of urban energy infrastructure, as it diversifies energy sources. The resulting system is less vulnerable to supply disruptions or fluctuations in energy markets, including price fluctuations.
  • By embracing heat recovery, data center operators demonstrate compliance with environmental regulations and can position themselves as environmental leaders.

A road map for integrating data centers and district heating

There is a wide array of technical specificities that must be met in order to maximize efficiency when integrating data centers and district heating.

First and foremost, heat pump integration remains a key component in this unification. As recovered waste heat is typically at low grade temperatures, industrial heat pump technology can elevate and transform it to achieve a functional heat source for district heating. 

As such, the use of large scale heat pumps would minimize CO2 footprints in both data centers and district heating, as well as guaranteeing higher efficiencies in heat generation.

Other considerations when fostering synergies between data centers and district heating include: 

  • Identification of district heating networks that align with data center heat production. This process is typically more fruitful for all parties if collaboration occurs at initial stages during data center planning
  • Implementation of heat recovery systems and heat distribution infrastructure such as pipelines and heat exchangers
  • Finding energy management systems that monitor, control and optimize heat recovery
  • Integrating AI and smart technologies that allow heating to operate flexibly and respond to actual heating demand

As such, leveraging technological innovation and strategic planning would ensure the integration of data centers with district heating systems is factually cost-efficient and more sustainable.

The case for waste heat from data centers

All in all, the transfer of waste heat from data centers into district heating systems presents a compelling opportunity for sustainable resource optimization. 

As such, the narrative shifts: instead of treating data center excess heat as a liability, it can be harnessed for district heating in nearby buildings.

Future outlooks will likely see different formulas for success. This includes the growing incorporation of small and medium data centers, which offer the benefit of being close to existing DH networks and thus reducing transmission losses and the need for extensive investments.

In this context, public authorities are also committing to the vision of employing waste heat from data centers. For instance, Europe’s ‘Fit for 55’ package (a series of proposals to incorporate to EU law) mandates new data centers larger than 100 kW to perform a cost-benefit analysis for waste-heat recovery, including its potential incorporation to district heating systems. 

As such, new initiatives are expected to continue facilitating the use of waste heat from data centers both on the technological side as well as the regulatory framework. This includes questions around who operates and handles waste heat and standardized methodologies to calculate price ceilings.

At ARANER, we’re at the forefront of innovative thermal engineering. Our expertise in both district heating initiatives and data center cooling gives us a a privileged viewpoint to advance towards integrating data centers and district heating for top sustainability and cost-efficiency.

Such is the case of our data center cooling project in  the Al Ashghal complex, which introduced state-of-the-art Thermal Energy Storage (TES) systems to guarantee total reliability, as well as meeting efficiency and sustainability goals.

Looking for an ally to develop your data center and district heating integration? Get in touch with us to learn more about how we can help your project achieve its maximum potential.

Nueva llamada a la acción

icon-time 5 min