The interior of a modern data centre. Hard drives mounted in rows of racks. Source: Fotolia #41283463.

+ Making data centres part of the infrastructure of Smart Cities would enable the excess heat they produce to be harnessed and redeployed.

Putting data centres at the heart of Smart Cities and making use of the waste heat they produce could generate a host of benefits – and it’s not as far-fetched as it might sound. 

Everything from banking and cloud services to telecoms and television is now driven by data, which must be processed in data centres. Such is the scale of data processing that it has a significant impact on global energy consumption and carbon emissions. And yet, until recently, opportunities to improve data centres’ green credentials were often overlooked.

Arup Associates’ pioneering work on the Citi Data Centre in Frankfurt led the way in changing this. This data centre was the first in the world to be rated LEED Platinum and a broad sustainability agenda included dramatically reduced energy consumption, ‘free cooling’ from the ambient environment and sourcing electrical energy from zero-carbon sources.

Since then, the issue of green data has risen up the agenda and data centres have become increasingly efficient. But they still demand lots of electrical power and create a lot of heat – which goes to waste if there’s no use for it nearby. And currently, data centres are often located on out-of-town industrial parks where there is no nearby use for the excess heat.

To date, the industry’s work on green data has focussed on the efficient supply of renewable energy and the efficient disposal of this heat. At Arup Associates, we’ve worked on projects locating data centres adjacent to renewable power sources, such as wind farms or even tidal generation. However, the intermittent energy these sources produce means that, for now, data centres remain grid-connected so they can access a reliable and continuous supply of power.

However, I think we’re still missing a trick when it comes to the part data centres can play in our cities. Smart Cities will give us a connected, technology-aware urban realm, with our buildings and citywide systems communicating and optimising energy, carbon emissions and potentially a whole host of other aspects of our lives. Smart Cities will run on data, so why not put data centres at their heart?

By making data centres, and the sustainable generation to power them, part of the infrastructure of our Smart Cities, we could easily harness their excess heat and stop it going to waste. Unlike many heat recovery sources, the heat from data centres is continuous and comparatively high grade. It can be easily upgraded so it’s hot enough to be useful in other buildings.

Arup Associates’ work on BSkyB’s new headquarters shows how it’s possible to generate renewable energy adjacent to the point-of-use and make use of waste heat. We planned a biomass combined cooling, heating and power plant next to the new studio building, designed the building without boilers by recovering heat and made further waste energy available to the wider masterplan and surrounding developments. This is a first for integrated energy generation, recovery and distribution and a model for urban energy infrastructure.

Sadly, this sort of thinking is rare. If it were adopted more widely, we could see a win-win situation where data centres mitigate their environmental impact by supplying heat to the local community. With their low traffic impact, data centres could make ideal neighbours, so why not put them at the heart of the community?