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TechUK warns datacentre operators government could get powers to enforce heat reuse

UK tech trade body publishes report about challenges datacentre operators may face if the government gets powers that require them to join heat reuse schemes

UK datacentre operators need to brace themselves for the possibility of the UK government gaining powers that might insist they connect their facilities to district heat networks, TechUK has warned.

The UK technology trade body made the claim in its 25-page Warming up to efficiency: Understanding the potential benefits and pitfalls of datacentre heat export in the UK report, which details the challenges operators may face when trying to reuse and export the heat their facilities produce.

Datacentre heat reuse is a concept that has taken off in some countries more than others, particularly the Nordics, but the UK has lagged behind its European counterparts in terms of embracing the idea, but this is something the government is keen to change.

To this point, the report outlines the legislative changes the UK government has introduced in October 2023, via the Energy Act 2023, to pave the way for heat network zoning in the England. This was followed up a month later with a £65m funding commitment by the Department for Energy Security and Net-Zero for green heating projects aimed at reusing the datacentre heat to warm homes.

Furthermore, in December 2023, the government published a consultation document on heat network zoning that describes datacentres as “owners of heat sources capable of selling heat to heat networks”.

For these reasons, TechUK said the sector needs to brace itself for the possibility that they might be forced by the government to participate in heat reuse schemes, given the attention this issue is getting at the moment.

“Although certain details are pending refinement, the clear indication is that the government might soon possess powers to require datacentres to connect to heat networks,” said the TechUK report. “As different initiatives unfold, we expect regulation to be enshrined in law in 2025.” And if that were to happen, there are a number of challenges that TechUK has identified that might make this a complicated mandate for the sector to abide by.

For instance, the report details the impact that seasonal variations in temperature may have on the demand for waste datacentre heat, as well as practical and infrastructural considerations about who the recipients of this heat will be and how it will be delivered to them.

Other areas under discussion in the report include the datacentre design challenges operators will face, particularly those who have existing sites in operation that have never been equipped for their heat to be reused, and how occupancy levels may hinder how much total heat there is available for reuse.

“The feasibility of reusing residual heat from datacentres hinges significantly on the initial planning and design choices, as adjustments are difficult to make afterwards,” the report stated. “Inevitably, some existing datacentres may find themselves facing significant obstacles when attempting to connect to heat networks due to decisions made at the outside.

“It is therefore imperative that any residual heat requirements are not compulsory for existing sites. The government should also give datacentres reasonable lead time, allowing time to develop designs that seamlessly integrate with heat networks and facilitate the efficient channeling of residual heat.”

Luisa Cardani, head of datacentres at TechUK, said there are numerous benefits to be had from reusing the heat generated by server farms, but successful and large-scale execution of the concept will require some work.

“The utilisation of datacentre heat for district heating networks in the UK holds significant promise, particularly from sustainability and corporate social responsibility standpoints,” she said. “By embracing a circular economy model, datacentres can redirect surplus residual heat to local networks, optimising resource utilisation.

“Addressing the challenges ahead is imperative for the successful integration of datacentre heat into district heating networks. Stakeholders must collaborate to ensure long-term viability and alignment with sustainability goals.”

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