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Cool Synergy: Water Warmed from Cooling New Data Center to Heat Helsinki Homes

by Justin Vela

The Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki, Finland. Water used to cool a data center in the bomb shelter of the cathedral will go on to heat 500 homes. (Image via Flickr/hansco)

A mini revolution in eco-friendly computing is taking place in the depths of the 19th-century Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral in downtown Helsinki, Finland.

The Finnish IT company Academica has installed a new 2MW database server center in an empty second world war bomb shelter meant to protect city officials in the event of a Russian attack. Water warmed while cooling the servers will go on to provide heat for 500 homes or 1,000 flats in a city that often suffers winters of -20C. After the heat is extracted, the water will be recycled back to cool the servers again.

"There have been smaller implementations of similar systems," says Pietari Päivänen, head of sales at Academica. "Data centers being used to heat parking lots. No one has conducted the heat towards a central heating system however."

Around the world, vast and fast-rising amounts of information and data are being stored online, creating a huge demand for affordable data centers. But the servers consume vast amounts of energy, raising concerns about the greenhouse gas emissions produced. About 2% of the total electricity used in Britain powers data centers, making them expensive to operate and a significant factor in the causes of climate change.

Cooling the servers is the most expensive and energy intensive part of maintaining a data center and Academica are tackling this challenge by making use of the heat extracted. Together with Helsingin Energia, an energy company owned by the city of Helsinki, they have designed a system to use the chilly waters of the Baltic sea to cool the servers. The heat is transferred by a separate pipe system of desalinated water and then sent through the city's vast underground tunnel network to the district heating system, for which the tunnels were originally built.

The data center began operation in the last few weeks and immediately Helsinki was able to lower the output from its coal-fired power stations, reducing pollution and saving money. Expectations for the future are high, and Academica has already been contracted to build a second data center – ten times larger – to provide heat for the city.

"In the US for example the access to energy is cheaper," says Juha Sipilä, an engineer at Helsingin Energia and project manager. "For us in Finland fuel and energy has always been quite expensive. It has forced us to look for some solutions to cut down on our energy consumption." The use of the underground bomb shelter has another perk, said Sipilä: "The servers will be very safe."

Providing a green data center is also expected to save Academica about £140,000 a year.

"There is the saving cost," Päivänen says. "There is not any conflict between those areas. People believed a couple of years ago that being green meant higher costs. This is not necessarily the way anymore."

The new data center in Helsinki comes at the same time as Google is building their own database server center in Finland, in the town of Hamina about 93 miles from Helsinki.

Set to begin operation this year, the £180m data center will use water from the Baltic Sea to cool their servers. Two of Google's 40 plus data centers run on 100% recycled water. This year Google expects recycled water to provide 80% of its total data center water consumption.

This post originally appeared on The Guardian.

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