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Facebook photos could warm homes

By 2020, we will use more energy storing all of our virtual lives “on the cloud” than we will by flying in airplanes. As we all add more and more of all of our all-too-easily-uploaded data to humanity’s ever growing attic where all our virtual stuff is stored, the need to add more data storage in an environmentally friendly way becomes crucial, because data servers use more and more energy.

But a data center or server farm doesn’t just use energy. It also can actually generate electricity. Data centers generate heat. Heat can be harnessed to create two forms of energy we need; both electricity, and district heat as well (co-generation, or combined heat and power or CHP).

A data center can actually be a source of both valuable heating and create actual megawatts of electricity, just from doing its thing, and storing our virtual stuff.

District cooling and heating is already a mainstay in Finland and some other Scandinavian countries, contributing to their Kyoto-required reductions in CO2. Heat gets captured and injected into water or steam. The water or steam is then run through pipes underground to supply down town areas where it gets gets used as hot water or is used to run radiators. By adding chillers and heat exchangers; the heat energy can be also be used to drive air conditioners.

Finland already gets 29% of its electricity from the waste heat from industrial cogeneration projects, but by 2007, co-generation also supplied 74% of the heat needed for district heating. Within the US alone there is an estimated 7 quadrillion BTUs of potential untapped heat energy.

Until now most of the electricity production from Finnish industrial co-generation has come from the large timber and paper industry in Finland.

But the idea of using new tech processes, like computing, that also create heat, to add an additional revenue stream from electricity production and district heating, is only starting to be put into practice. A new data farm-cum-power station under Helsinki is one of the first of these.

San Diego’s Qualcomm supplies 4.5 MW of electricity as well as hot water that is used with an absorption chiller for air conditioning to cool the data center and the surrounding buildings, enough for 85% of the headquarters heat and power needs.

The EPA says that any data farm paying more than 7 cents a kwh for electricity is a good candidate for saving money along with energy, with co-generation.