Pricing up district heating vs reused-data centre heating

Hello folks,

I’ve had good responses so far so I figured it might be worth asking here.

I read this piece here where datacentre operators are trying to figure out how to price the heat by products from their infrastructure, so make it possible to compare the cost of sourcing heat from here, versus burning national gas.

They list a table for pricing heat, as part of a transparency push here:

This will lead to a price per kWh of heat that can be used by others to determine a business case for building pipelines, district heating systems, or to relocate their business closer to the data center.

Are there any papers you know of that make it easier to figure out how this compares to alternatives like generating heat from burning fossil fuels, even air source heat pumps ?

I have no intuition for understanding if this is expensive or not, or whether the units are comparable, but I do know that heating is a challenge in Europe, and that datacentres spend loads of money trying to get rid of heat - at a system level, this seems a tad wasteful, to say the least.

To my knowledge, there is not much work on data centres specifically within this community. Here are a couple papers from Google Scholar — both from the perspective of the equipment rather than system integration:

  • Deymi-Dashtebayaz, Mahdi and Sajad Valipour-Namanlo (10 May 2019). “Thermoeconomic and environmental feasibility of waste heat recovery of a data center using air source heat pump”. Journal of Cleaner Production. 219: 117–126. ISSN 0959-6526. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.02.061. Closed access.

  • Ebrahimi, Khosrow, Gerard F Jones, and Amy S Fleischer (1 March 2014). “A review of data center cooling technology, operating conditions and the corresponding low-grade waste heat recovery opportunities”. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 31: 622–638. ISSN 1364-0321. doi:10.1016/j.rser.2013.12.007. Closed access.

And a recent lo‑tech and quite trivial example (just 12 dumpsters of timber being dried) in the mainstream media:

On the question of comparing alternatives, any of the energy system modeling frameworks that support low‑grade heat would yield answers. I started that journey with this particular seminal paper:

But today, any of the frameworks aimed at analyzing municipal systems should easily tackle the issue of waste heat from data centeres — try say ETEM.

The next point is energy quality — in this case, low‑grade versus high‑grade heat. Which can be quantified using exergy analysis. For heat, the temperature relative to the soundings is material — while noting that flow and non‑flow formulations differ. And when combined with capital and fuel and other operating costs, gives rise to the domain of exergoeconomics. Here is a Berlin example with heat storage in the mix as well:

The blog you referenced refers to the EU fit‑for‑55 package on greenhouse gas reductions. Part of that will doubtless require much greater levels of high‑resolution logged reporting from data center operators in Europe. The European Commission is pushing this angle hard across all sectors these days.

So in summary, the analytical methods are well developed and much of the tooling is open‑source. Someone just needs to commission the relevant research if they want specific answers!

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