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I've just read the article Microsoft sinks a data center off the Scottish coast (The Verge, 6 June 2018)

I understand that the cooling of a data center is a problem. Data centers produce huge amounts of heat, and they have to run at normal temperatures, otherwise the hardware gets damaged. The cooling is much easier when there is a lot of cool water available, so most data centers are built in countries with a cool climate.

But at the same time, the countries with a cool climate consume a lot of energy to warm up water for their heatings.

Why does Microsoft experiment with a data center under sea, instead of using the data center's warm water to heat surrounding buildings? There are similar solutions in other areas, e.g. combined heat and power facilities with district heating schemes.

I've found some articles about data centers involved in district heating, but I'm wondering why this isn't done more often. Are there any obstacles, hidden costs, or other problems (like, keeping the location of the data center a secret)?

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    The titular question is answered in the body of your question. Yes, of course it can. I suggest you change the title to focus on the content: what are the obstacles? – gerrit Jun 7 '18 at 9:31
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    There is more than one question in here: 1. Why does Microsoft experiment with a data center under sea, which is off-topic for this site. 2. Why this isn't done more often. I suggest you edit this and limit the question to 2. – Jan Doggen Jun 7 '18 at 9:32
  • I think cryptocurrency mining operations could provide a lot of heat energy, too. – Francesco Turco Aug 27 '18 at 19:54
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Yes, when the data center is located near heating loads

The U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, CO features a prime example of this, at the Energy Systems Integration Facility:

With heat exchangers, heat energy in the energy recovery water (ERW) loop becomes available to heat the facility's process hot water (PHW) loop. Once heated, the PHW loop supplies:

  • Active chilled beams to heat the office space
  • Air handlers to heat the conference and high bay spaces
  • Snow melt loop in the courtyard of the ESIF's main entrance
  • District heating loop:
    • If additional heat is needed for the building, the PHW loop can draw heat from the campus heating loop
    • If surplus heat is available, the PHW loop can provide heat to the campus heating loop. During transition months (April and October), excess heat from the ESIF has been sufficient to provide heat for other buildings, shortening the time boilers are needed to provide campus heat.

This was one project I was aware of, but I googled a bit and found a few lists with other examples:

But often, data centers are located far from other buildings and population centers

Here's a picture from Google of one of their data centers:

Google data center in Mayes County, Oklahoma

As you click through the lists of data centers for Google, Amazon, and IBM, you see that many of them are in suburban or rural areas. There are several reasons for this:

  • Land is cheaper
  • Construction costs are lower
  • No need for a large workforce
  • Can be co-sited with wind and/or solar power

The one down-side to rural areas is that a high-speed telecommunication network may not be readily available -- but it seems that in many cases the data center operator finds it cheaper to pay the costs to bring one in, than to locate the data center in an area with better telecom infrastructure.

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District heating requires infrastructure. In some countries, like Sweden, there is considerable district heating infrastructure, and adding additional sources of heat (such as a data center) is relatively easy. In other countries, like the United Kingdom, such infrastructure is rare. To benefit from the rest heat of a data center or power plant, hot water would need to be piped to offices and households. Another difference is that in Sweden, people commonly live in apartments, whereas in the United Kingdom, people more commonly live in houses. Apartments are easier to heat with district heating, although both are possible. Building the necessary infrastructure in either case requires considerable collective capital investment.

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Yes, a German company (www.cloudandheat.com) provides small scale data centres. They can be installed into cellars and take the heat directly from the hottest chips (CPU, etc.). The heat is transported with water to the the heating cycle of the building. The small scaled data centre can heat an apartment house starting from 6 apartments. The system is scalable.

I know that people and am convinced that there are more companies providing something comparable.

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