In this blog post, Ian Bitterlin says making use of waste heat and ‘smarter’ grids is a good thing, but wonders why data centres are set to bear the brunt of regulation.
A hot topic (pun intended) in the hallways of the EU in Brussels is the reuse of the waste heat produced by ICT equipment, specifically in data centres. It is attracting research funding (otherwise known as tax-payers hard-won cash) tied in with smart-cities and making sure that ICT is powered from renewable sources. If that means that you won’t be able to use Facebook until the wind is blowing hard enough in Orkney then so be it… and if you think that I am joking then think again, because I am only exaggerating a little bit, and certainly not a lot. What about batch-processing that went out of the window with the early generation mainframes? The concept is returning in these research projects under the guise of ‘load-shifting’ to match the varying output of renewables. When the tide comes in the taxman can print your tax demand and when it goes out he can print the warning letter that you haven’t paid yet.
Now, don’t get me wrong, reusing waste heat and shifting load to match generation can only be a good thing and may well become a key feature of many a smart-city application but what I don’t get is why the EU has singled out IT and data centres as potential targets for spending our money on? The best answer I could get when I asked the question was ‘it is a modern phenomenon that can be used to inspire the younger generation to treat energy with more respect than the previous generation’ (verbatim). I bet they won’t think that when they are restricted in their social networking and on-line gaming to hours when the sun is shining strongly in some far flung land.
Anyway I think that everything should be renewably powered but also that it will be impossible in the UK to get much more than 50% of the utility to be carbon-free. I’m an engineer and don’t find nuclear fission something that we can, or even should, avoid – it is virtually zero carbon and a good base-load generator for propping up the intermittence of most renewables. So, if you accept that, then renewables will be a finite resource and, therefore, for every ‘clean’ Watt that somebody burns someone else will have to burn a ‘dirty’ one. So why not hospitals or retirement homes that should be 100% renewably powered? There is no reason that I can think of – and it could be said that those are more ‘noble’ recipients than on-line dating?
I guess that’s the real problem. Hardly anyone ever asks about the waste heat from a steel-works, bakery, laundry or baked-beans factory – because you can measure their output in kg/kWh and compare it with their own history or their peers but we have no way of measuring the weight or value of digital services. Tax-demands/kWh?
Ian Bitterlin is a consulting engineer and visiting professor at Leeds University.