Home Estate Planning Heating pools with cat videos? How data centres can carve a brave new world

Heating pools with cat videos? How data centres can carve a brave new world

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Companies are already using wasted heat from data centres in innovative ways, but we need government to get on board, writes Mark Bjornsgaard

Google’s recent announcement that it has started construction on a new £800m data centre in North London is a sign of things to come. Our societies and economies run on data that is stored and processed in data centres. New technologies such as artificial intelligence are only increasing demand.

Yet, although we are all now familiar with terms such as artificial intelligence or ‘the cloud’, have we considered what they mean in practice? The digital economy might appear intangible, existing out of sight in the digital ‘abyss’, but it is firmly rooted in the real world by the global network of data centres.
Each data centre, essentially a large warehouse housing thousands of computers, works non-stop to fulfil our digital demands, whether that is a query to ChatGPT, an email to a colleague, or streaming the latest show on Netflix.

But, every click on your computer has a cost. Data centres are energy-hungry, accounting for as much as 10 per cent of electricity consumed in the UK. They also are taking up an increasing amount of space. We have over 500 across the UK, but demand is set to triple over the next decade. Some estimates put this higher.
Importantly, data centres release a staggering amount of heat. Much like your laptop when you run too many applications at once, data centres overheat. Around 45 per cent of the energy they drain is spent just keeping the computers cool. This heat in almost all cases is wasted, expelled into the atmosphere – a huge missed opportunity.

All the heat produced by the UK’s fleet of data centres could be provided free to local communities, warming homes, schools, hospitals or swimming pools. But, the industry is not currently set up to achieve this. And if we don’t bake heat capture into new sites from day one, we will continue to waste huge amounts of heat.

However, if we get this right, the gains are huge and satisfyingly efficient: ChatGPT could heat our homes. Processing payrolls could heat the local pool. Watching cat videos on Youtube could save a hospital money on its energy bill.

Google says it plans to reuse the heat from its new London data hub, which is welcome. The opportunity presented by the site is significant. I estimate that a facility of that scale generates enough heat for around 40,000 homes. But, the concern remains that many operators have promised heat reuse and, to date, only a few have delivered.

It can be done. My company Deep Green is already heating a public pool in Devon, for free, using a data centre. Last month, Octopus Energy endorsed our approach with a £200m investment. With their financial backing, we will build many more data centres around the UK and share free heat with even more local communities.

But, seizing this opportunity needs more than a few isolated instances of good practice. We need a national conversation about how to make the data economy work better, putting waste heat to good use. The tech industry needs to be part of that conversation but so do politicians. Germany has passed a law requiring all new data centres to include heat capture. Britain could lead the world by requiring new data centres to commit to 100 per cent heat re-use within the next 10 years.

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