Everyone has an opinion about the spread of technology that in recent years has enabled us to connect just about any time and anywhere: At the same time it has provided the freedom to work from home, often at odd hours, it has brought the burden of never being able to fully leave work – or the world – behind.
But one thing about the information revolution that is not a matter of a debate: This constant worldwide connectivity consumes a lot of energy. By most estimates, computer data centers that connect all of the world’s computers are fairly energy-intensive. While this source of energy use is often overlooked in discussions about conservation, it is a massive amount, on par with the airline industry.
Many technologies have sought to make the data centers or so-called computer server farms more efficient. CEA recently wrote about one approach involving cow manure. Now, a company in Finland has come up with a particularly elegant solution. It is using the water warmed while cooling computer servers to heat nearby homes. The company, Academica, has set up a data center in downtown Helsinki and partnered with a local energy company to use water extracted from the Baltic Sea to cool the servers. As the water warms, heat will be extracted. The company says it will be able to produce enough heat in this way to warm 500 homes or about 1,000 apartments. And since it began operating the data center this summer, it has been contracted to build another one, about ten times larger, to provide heat to thousands of additional city residents.
This news of Academica’s success comes as companies all over the world are making progress in minimizing the footprint of from high-tech operations. One new study finds that several major tech companies like Cisco Systems and Intel have achieved massive emissions reductions in recent years, equivalent to removing nine coal-fired power plants. The progress comes both from high-tech advances like server virtualization, that essentially pack a lot more computing power into each individual server, as well as some good, old fashioned conservation measures like sealing drafty windows.
Unfortunately, the fact that such major reductions in consumption can be achieved in such a short time frame underscore that there is a lot of inefficiency in this sector. While data centers will continue to benefit from all sorts of conservation measures, the approach recently adopted in Helsinki – like the cow power we recently described – reminds us of the importance of thinking outside of the box and looking for ways to reuse our waste.