As the world becomes increasingly digital, the demand for data centres is skyrocketing. With so much data being generated every second, these facilities require a vast amount of energy to power their servers and keep them cool. Recent reports from McKinsey & Co. (2023) forecast that demand, in the US market alone, is expected to reach 35 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, up from 17 GW in 2022. As industries across the world change their behaviours in a bid to address climate change, we are seeing an increase in businesses applying circular economy principles to waste heat. With a bit of innovative engineering, can we turn this energy into a valuable resource for another growing industry?
Agriculture is currently facing its own well documented challenges, with climate change, energy price increases, labour shortages, and high input prices all having an impact. Is there an opportunity to align these two industries so that they can work together to provide a solution which simultaneously tackles increased energy requirements for growing fresh produce whilst recycling heat waste, thus contributing towards our global sustainability targets.
Stuart Dunton, Managing Director for J Dunton Associates, commented “With the ever-increasing demands driven by energy costs it is becoming apparent that industries cannot work in silos anymore, we need cross pollination across all industrial sectors to provide the best overall solution for planet earth. From an engineering side we can link the boxes, but we need hyperscalers and developers that want to come on the journey.”
In addition to the constraints of physical location for a data centre, there are the additional complexities of fulfilling end-user requirements, such as availability zones, network connections and electrical supplies, all of which have an impact on the geographical location of the data centre, leading to an increase of builds on brown field sites or areas where there is no available agricultural land sites e.g. Slough, etc.
Infrastructure allowing, is there an opportunity to build data centres adjacent to a greenhouse/vertical farm or vice versa, so that the excess heat could be channelled directly into the facility? These facilities require a constant supply of heat to keep crops at optimal temperatures, therefore the waste heat produced by data centres could be repurposed to meet this demand. This would not only reduce the amount of energy required to heat the facility but also provide a steady supply of heat that could be used to grow crops year-round.
Similarly, data centres could be built in rural areas where farmers could use the excess heat to power polytunnels. Polytunnels are low-cost easy-to-install structures that allow farmers to grow crops in protected environment. They are particularly useful in areas with harsh weather conditions, as they offer protection from wind rain and frost.
JP Dorgan, Growth Director for Tink and Grow Ltd, commented “By using the heat generated by data centres to power these structures, farmers could extend their growing season, increase crop yields, and reduce their energy bills. This would not only benefit the farmers but also increase availability of locally grown produce, reducing the carbon footprint associated with transporting food long distances.”
The EU Code of Conduct for Energy Efficiency in Data Centres (European Union, 2018) sets out the drive to reduce energy consumption in a cost-effective manner and improve energy efficiency. In addition to providing a sustainable source of heat for agriculture, using the data centre waste heat could also help reduce the carbon footprint of data centres themselves.
Overall, repurposing the heat generated by data centres for agricultural purpose is a win-win situation. It reduces the energy required to heat green houses, vertical farms, while also providing a valuable resource for farmers. As the world continues to digitise, we must find creative solutions to make the most of the energy we use, and repurposing data centre heat for tomato growing is one way we can do that. Who knows, in the future, the Amazon Fresh Tomato you buy could have been grown from the waste heat from its data centre?
The JDA team have the expertise to engineer the solution and want to be part of the collaborating teams that can make it happen. We want to hear from you, please get in touch.
European Union (2018) 2018 Best Practice Guidelines for the EU Code of Conduct on Data Centre Energy Efficiency. Available at: http://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/JRC110666/kjna29103enn.pdf (Accessed: 8 March 2023)
McKinsey & Company (2023) Investing in the rising data center economy. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/our-insights/investing-in-the-rising-data-center-economy (Accessed: 8 March 2023)