Datacenters to help heat up Finnish city

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Microsoft has announced a collaborative project that aims to capture surplus heat generated by a new data center region to be built by the company in the Helsinki metropolitan area in Finland. The region will use 100% emission-free electricity, and partner company Fortum will transfer the heat produced by the server cooling process to homes, services and commercial premises connected to the district heating system. According to the companies, the data centre waste heat recycling concept will be the largest of its kind in the world.

This joint initiative comes at the intersection of two megatrends: digitalization and energy transition. Microsoft and Fortum are bringing together expertise and innovation in heating, energy efficiency solutions, and cloud technologies to support the growth and competitiveness of the Helsinki metro area and Finland through sustainable decarbonization and digitalization.

The project will use Fortum’s existing district heating infrastructure in the region which includes about 900 km of underground pipes that transfer heat to about 250,000 users in neighboring cities.

“Finland is at the forefront of digitization and innovation, and businesses and public sector organizations are leading the digital transformation in their sectors,” says Cindy Rose, President of Microsoft Western Europe. “We are proud of the new way this datacenter will sustainably drive digital transformation in Finland, as well as warm Finnish homes and businesses and help cities meet their emissions targets. In this unique cooperation, Microsoft and Fortum will combine their expertise in cloud computing and sustainable energy solutions to transform the design of tomorrow’s data centres,” he added.

“Developing solutions to address the climate challenge is a strategic priority for Fortum, and we are proud to embark on this journey together with Microsoft. Sometimes the most sustainable solutions are simple: by harnessing waste heat from the data centre region, we can power homes, businesses, and public buildings and reduce around 400,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. This is an important step towards a cleaner world, making our joint ambition to reduce the effects of climate change possible,” says Markus Rauramo, President and CEO of Fortum.

The district heating system used in Finland’s cities works by generating and capturing heat and distributing it to buildings on a large scale by means of hot water is pumped through underground pipes. The new generation of district heating is based on replacing fossil fuels with smart solutions such as renewable energy, heat pumps, and waste heat utilization. Artificial intelligence solutions will optimize the operations of the entire system.

When waste heat capture is in operation, about 60% of the area heating will be generated from this source. Of that, 40% will come from the new datacenter region, and the rest from other sources, such as purified wastewater.

“The decision to invest in datacenters that will also provide surplus heat for our cities and homes is a win-win deal. It will also accelerate Finland’s digital growth and make our energy system more sustainable. I hope this collaboration can serve as a model for other countries and cities looking for ways to achieve both climate neutrality and digital competitiveness,” says Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland.

According to a recent IDC study, over the next four years, Microsoft, its cloud ecosystem and customers could together generate more than €17.2 billion in new revenues and secure more than 11,000 skilled IT jobs for the Finnish economy. Microsoft claims to have more than 45,000 customers and 2,000 partners in Finland.

Similar solution is already used in other countries

As the construction of a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient datacenters has gained momentum around the world, the idea of reusing excess heat has been largely ignored. But it shouldn’t be. Capturing and recirculating excess heat could be a vital contribution to smart, fossil-fuel-free urbanization. It could transform datacenters from a burden on the system and the environment into a benefit. This is already happening in Stockholm Data Parks (SPD), an initiative by the City of Stockholm, district heating and cooling provider Stockholm Exergi, power grid operator Ellevio and dark fibre supplier Stokab.

Three contracts have been signed-in SDP Kista, an area west of Stockholm, with data centres that will provide a total capacity of 20 megawatts of heat. The first of these data centres will start providing heat in the spring of 2021. The project has served as an example of how the circular economy can work. Companies using the data centres can improve their sustainability records while making money from an otherwise wasted by-product.

Any cost-effective heat recovery system has three basic requirements: (1) a heat source, (2) the infrastructure to transport the heat and (3) customers interested in buying it (i.e. a market). The SDP project includes all three. It was launched in 2017 and initially consisted of 220,000 square meters for datacenter investment, but is now considering expanding to a further 400,000 square meters.

The heat source is in the datacenters. Heat pumps absorb the thermal energy generated by the equipment and can bring the waste heat to a level of around 85 degrees Celsius (185 degrees Fahrenheit). As for infrastructure, the city has a 2,800-kilometre pipe system that runs underground, carrying hot water to buildings around Stockholm.

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