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Seattle Hopes to Heat Water, Neighborhoods via Data Center Energy

Data centers can waste 90 percent or more of their electricity, so Seattle officials want to put that energy to good use.

Despite the common assumption that "the cloud” is out in the ether, the truth is that the cloud is a host of large data centers planted firmly on the ground -- data centers that are far from energy efficient.

In fact, a 2012 New York Times investigation found that data centers can waste 90 percent or more of their electricity, due in large part to the fact that the backup and cooling systems for these machines are kept running almost constantly out of fear of a service disruption.

But Seattle officials have a few ideas for putting this excess heat to use.

“We’ve been looking at district energy for a couple of years,” Christie Baumel, climate protection policy advisor for the city's Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE), told NextCity. “We’re particularly intrigued by waste heat.” 

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OSE is hoping to deliver hot water and heat to two neighborhoods using a district energy system powered by two local data centers’ waste heat. (District energy is a system where steam, hot water or chilled water is generated in a centralized location and then distributed to a group of buildings.) This system, used for generations in cities like Manhattan and Denver, can serve facilities like college campuses and hospitals.

In the U.S., data centers’ energy usage increased by 36 percent between 2006 and 2011, and those numbers are projected to rise as more people and businesses will require expanded online storage. For a useful, year-round solution, district energy could be the answer.

For Seattle to attack such a project would be decidedly ambitious, but the benefits are also clear to OSE’s Baumel, who hopes to start moving into structural exploration as soon as possible.