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Computer power provides heat for Helsinki

Date: 11th March 2010
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Original article was published on the Times Online and can be found at

Outside, the temperature is a bone-chilling minus 14C and Helsinki is struggling with its iciest winter since 1982, but deep inside a former bomb shelter carved from the bedrock beneath an Orthodox cathedral, the city’s power company is building what will soon be the world’s most high-tech municipal heating system.

Here, surplus heat from hundreds of computer servers in a new data centre located beneath Uspenski Cathedral, one of the city’s main tourist attractions, will be captured and pumped to heat hundreds of homes and businesses across the Finnish capital.

“This will be the greenest and most energy-efficient data centre in the world,” Juha Sipila, the project manager for Helsingin Energia, the company behind the scheme, said.  In Helsinki, where winter temperatures often plunge to minus 30C, hardly anyone owns a domestic heating boiler. Instead, water is heated centrally at combined heat and power (CHP) plants to 115C and piped directly to tens of thousands of homes and public buildings.

Helsingin Energia is the operator of Helsinki’s district heating network, a 1,350km (850-mile) network of underground pipes, tunnels and pumping stations that supplies hot water to 450,000 people across one of the world’s coldest capital cities. The data centre will be cooled using seawater from the Baltic, which falls below 8C from November to May, with the excess heat pumped back into the city’s heating system — a solution that Mr Sipila hopes will help to crack a pressing problem for the world’s IT industry.

Data centres consume vast amounts of energy — about 3 per cent of all the electricity generated in Britain, for example. About two-thirds of the total is used simply for cooling. That figure is growing steadily with the brisk expansion of so-called cloud computing, whereby the internet is evolving into a central store for data and processing for millions of businesses around the world. Global emissions of carbon dioxide from data centres are now equivalent to about a third of the total from aviation and are rising by 10 per cent per year.

“For technology companies like Google and IBM, this is a very big issue,” Matti Roto, of Academica, a Finnish IT firm involved in the project, said. “The cost of paying for all that energy is huge — quite apart from the emissions — so it is very important to find solutions to improve efficiency.” Only about 40 per cent of the energy consumed by a typical data centre is used for computing, Mr Roto said, with the rest needed simply to cool down the computers. This centre’s power usage effectiveness — the central measurement of data centre efficiency — will be an unprecedented figure of less than one. The lowest figure for other centres has been 1.5.

The Academica server centre due to enter service in April is a pilot and will supply enough hot water to heat 1,000 flats. Mr Roto has plans for a much bigger scheme including 2,000 square metres of server racks.  He believes that Nordic countries may have stumbled across a lucrative new business opportunity to tap into the growing £7 billion global server market. A similar project is under way in Iceland, which will use geothermal energy to power servers and cold seawater for cooling. Google has also announced plans recently to site a giant server centre in Finland.

Keysource says:

Hats off to Helsingin Energia – It is a positive sign that more and more global businesses are recognising the impact that data centres are having on the environment.

Keysource have been proactive in the recovery of waste energy from the data centre to try and provide a level of heating to neighboring communities. So far it has been largely unsuccessful due to the difficulties in transporting the vast quantities of low grade heat produced by a large data centre over any distance. It would certainly be interesting to discover exactly how Helsingin Energia is overcoming this obstacle.

In consideration to the savings made and the PUE achievable, UK data centre design and build company Keysource have already built a data centre in the UK, which has been operational for 12 months with an annualised PUE 1.17. This has achieved a 6.7 million kWh reduction in annual power consumption and 2.9 million kg reduction in annual CO2 emissions in its first year. Visit our projects page for more details.


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