01.08.2022

eco Alliance on the Energy Crisis: Waste heat from data centres offers great potential, but no alternative to Russian gas in the short term

Waldhauser: “Germany has slept through the heat transition for ten years”

Heating via the Internet – the utilisation of waste heat from data centres makes it possible. If the heat generated by data centres was used on a consistent basis, large cities in Germany could be heated in a CO2-neutral capacity in the long term. Initial forecasts for this are provided by Frankfurt, which is the location of more than 60 data centres and the world’s largest Internet Exchange: by 2030, all residential and office spaces here could receive a climate-neutral heat supply through waste heat utilisation.

Especially in view of the looming energy crisis, the utilisation of waste heat could be an interesting alternative to Russian gas. However, this is not feasible in the short term because politicians and authorities in Germany have not set the appropriate framework conditions in time, says Dr Béla Waldhauser, Spokesperson for the Alliance for the Strengthening of Digital Infrastructures in Germany,  founded under the umbrella of the eco Association.

“The sad reality is: in order to meet the current energy demand with waste heat, the federal government should have started this process ten years earlier – Germany has simply slept through the heat transition,” says Waldhauser.  “The utilisation of waste heat from data centres will definitely be one of the top solutions in the coming years if we want to save energy costs and CO2. But even if the politicians kick into turbo gear now and speed up procedures, we won’t be able to plan for more waste heat as a substitute for Russian gas until next winter.”

“Germany should have invested more and earlier in district heating networks”

As Waldhauser sees it, the federal, state and local governments should have invested in district heating networks at a much earlier stage. For example, so-called fourth-generation heating network systems make it possible to integrate data centre waste heat cost-effectively and efficiently and to distribute the energy generated from it over several kilometres to households and commercial providers. But there is still a long way to go in Germany: “Most waste heat is currently either lost in the air or is often fed into the local heating network, which means it can only be used for residential and office complexes in the immediate vicinity,” Waldhauser continues. What’s more, about half of the heating systems in German private households date back to the last century and are therefore more than 20 years old.

Data centre industry calls for more streamlined approval processes and economic incentives

In order to provide a real alternative to gas, at least within the next three to four years, Waldhauser is calling on politicians to provide more support to operators in the roll-out of waste heat systems and to significantly streamline approval processes for the new construction and modernisation of data centres.

“The industry is already delivering innovative solutions, but more economic incentives and the necessary political framework conditions are needed,” says Waldhauser. “In Germany, the building permit for a data centre alone requires six, nine, or sometimes even a twelve-month timeframe. That is clearly too long if we want to drive digitalisation forward and use its leverage to simultaneously tackle the climate and energy crisis.”

How data centre waste heat can already be used on a large scale is demonstrated by other European countries such as Denmark: “For decades, Denmark, but also other Scandinavian countries, have been investing massively in the district heating network, renewable energies and in the utilisation of waste heat, and are reaping the benefits in the current energy crisis,” says Waldhauser. In Scandinavia in particular, the respective governments recognised the importance of data centres as digital infrastructure early on and supported them accordingly.

Frankfurt metropolis takes on pioneering role in waste heat utilisation

According to Waldhauser, the data centre industry was the driving force behind German pilot projects such as the current Westville construction project in Frankfurt’s Gallus district, where around 1,300 apartments as well as commercial and retail space are also to be partly covered by waste heat from data centres by mid-2025.

Another positive example within the Frankfurt metropolis is the cloud data centre in the Eurotheum building complex on the premises of the former ECB data centre: With the help of a water-based direct cooling system, around 70 per cent of the waste heat is utilised directly on site to heat the resident office and conference rooms, hotels and restaurants. Thanks to the sustainable technology, the Dresden-based company saves about 40 per cent of its energy costs annually; a saving of about 65,000 Euro can be attributed purely to the utilisation of waste heat. In addition, more than 700 tonnes of CO2 are saved per year. (For more information: eco Alliance study on sustainable data centres).

Waldhauser now hopes that the energy crisis will lead to a shift in political thoughts. The federal, state and local governments should definitely capitalise upon the potential of digitalisation in heat production for private households as well as offices: “I hope that Frankfurt won’t remain as an exception in this regard and that the federal government will recognise the potential of waste heat utilisation and sustainably promote it – also with a view to climate protection. We need staying power for the nationwide utilisation of waste heat in Germany, and that goes far beyond the current legislative term.”

 

Energy Efficiency 2050: Alliance for the Strengthening of Digital Infrastructures Represents eco in the German Federal Government’s Working Group on Digitalisation