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Government flags opportunity for re-use of waste datacentre heat in net-zero strategy

UK government's long-awaited net-zero strategy document makes the case for the creation of heat networks that could see waste heat from datacentres used to warm homes and businesses

The UK government has flagged datacentres as a prime source of waste heat that could be repurposed to warm homes and businesses, as part of its plan to decarbonise the economy by delivering its net-zero strategy.

The government published details today about how it intends to achieve its goal of reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 by phasing out the use of fossil fuels from society and adding more green power to the nation’s energy mix.

The strategy is being billed by the government as a £26bn “green industrial revolution” that will introduce a ban on the sale of new gas boilers by 2035, with householders set to be offered grants of up to £5,000 to encourage them to transition to new lower-carbon heating systems.

Alternative household heating mechanisms will include electric heat pumps, which the government will encourage householders to deploy through the delivery of a £60m funding programme that it claims will result in 600,000 pump installations a year by 2028.

“Much like the move to electric vehicles, the move to low-carbon heating will be a gradual transition from niche product to mainstream consumer option,” said Kwasi  Kwarteng, secretary of state for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, in the government’s 202-page Heat and buildings strategy document.

In support of its heat pump roll-out plans, the government said it will invest £338m between 2022 and 2025 into the creation of heat networks that rely on pipes to transmit hot water from a centralised heat source to homes and businesses for heating purposes.

“As this pipe infrastructure can be used to deliver heating from a range of different heat sources, they can be decarbonised by switching to a low-carbon source of heat,” said the document.

Listed among the potential heat sources are datacentres, which typically generate large quantities of warm air as a by-product of their efforts to keep the servers contained within them cool.

Read more about datacentres and heat re-use

“Once in place, heat networks can reduce heating bills and the costs associated with maintaining individual heating appliances,” said the document. “They are also particularly cost-effective, low-carbon heating solutions in dense urban environments.”

According to the government’s figures, about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions are generated through heating homes and businesses, and it is hoped the transition to heat pumps and networks will go some way to address this.

However, as noted in the document, heat networks can be “complex and expensive to build” and “require an organisation to design, promote and install” because their creation is “not normally initiated by individual building owners”.

It added: “Sufficient heat demand is necessary to make the investment required for a heat network economic, as is co-ordination between a number of different parties.”

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, datacentre heat re-use initiatives are relatively thin on the ground in the UK for the reasons given above, but there are numerous example of datacentre operators in the Nordics that have successfully deployed such setups.

The strategy document acknowledged that there is work to be done to deliver on the government’s heat networks vision, given that there is a shortage of people with the skills and experience needed to develop and build them.

“Through our transformation programme, we will develop regulations to drive decarbonisation, improve customer protection and performance of legacy networks, grow supply chains and upskill the workforce,” it added.

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT

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