Business Innovation Real Estate Sustainability

Data Center Demand Offers Opportunity To Supply Energy To Housing

These days every company is being valued on the data that it captures from customers, even making some organizations’ data worth more than the company itself.

With that being said, most organizations are scrambling to create ways to capture that data and have it available to access anytime, which requires some hardware. That hardware can mean a data center, which has become a real estate boom.

Diana Olick, real estate correspondent at CNBC, reported that the remote work trend due to the pandemic is creating more demand for data, and supply grew by 5.9% in major data centers. In the same article, commercial real estate firm CBRE predicted that 2021 is going to be a record year for the growth in the data real estate sector, which is measured in power, not square footage.

“These building types are so valuable to our modern lifestyles, they are being constructed at a pace that will see the amount of facilities more than double in the next 10 years,” said Zenon Radewych, principal at Toronto-based architecture firm WZMH Architects.

The demand is predicted to continue to grow because of the increased use of internet of things devices, along with enhanced computing ability, self-driving cars, 5G technology, networking infrastructure and storage resources.

As data centers are currently built and designed, they don’t last as long as traditional buildings, with a lifespan of only 15 to 20 years. With growing demand, short lives and huge energy needs, data centers are a threat to the built environment’s positive environmental progress.

“For example, Northern Virginia is known as the data center capital of the world,” said Radewych. “There, Louden County has more than 60 data centers, which house an average of 12 generators each – this is equal to generating power for more than 45,000 residential apartment units per month.”

Otto VanGeet is principal engineer of the Applied Engineering Group at research group National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and points out that data centers represent 2% of the electrical use in the US right now, and that number continues to grow.

Data Center Passive Energy For Housing

Data centers have large uninterruptible power supply systems that are made of many generators and are designed to operate for multiple days at a time.

As WZMH explains, these generators are tested once per month, but the energy generated from the routine testing is not used to support any of the building’s electricity requirements, so essentially, the electricity created goes to waste. Plus, data center servers work all hours of the day to satisfy the country’s vast data demands, which generates a lot of heat that also goes to waste.

The combination of generator tests and wasted heat present an opportunity: co-locating housing with data centers, where the housing will be able to benefit from the wasted energy from the routine testing of onsite generators and the wasted heat that can be used to heat housing in particular climates.

“Waste heat can serve to heat entire residential buildings. With thermoelectric panels, some can even be converted into ‘recycled’ electricity that can be fed back to a community-based DC microgrid, which can provide power for housing and other buildings,” said Jeremy Lytle, a student at Ryerson University working with WZMH on a new product to leverage the microgrids that operate with direct current or DC electricity.

While NREL is running research on managing waste heat better, VanGeet points out that the industry as a whole isn’t doing a very good job with it yet.

“Data centers are essentially giant electric heaters,” he said. “That heat is rejected to the ambient. Big opportunity is to start reusing that waste heat for something. We do that right now at NREL. We publish reports on how we are doing with that and encourage that.”

WZMH has been able to demonstrate that using five units of data center floor area for every 100 units of residential floor area can provide enough waste heat to completely eliminate the natural gas demand for residential space heating in a cold climate like Toronto where the firm is located. Which is money in the bank, because data center waste heat is 100% reliable.

WZMH estimates that a data center with eight three-megawatt diesel generators that are tested for one hour each month can supply a 125-unit multifamily building with enough energy to cover the equivalent of one day per week of free electricity for every unit in the building.

Alternatively, VanGeet suggests that the key strategy should be just to minimize generator run time.

Making It a Reality

Whether by choice or encouraged by new building codes, data center owners and developers are interested in greener solutions to reduce the carbon footprint.

NREL explains that the general data center efficiency strategy is to first make the data center as efficient as possible, measured by power usage effectiveness. Then, reuse as much waste heat as possible, measured by energy reuse effectiveness. Then, reduce the water use as much as possible as measured by water usage effectiveness. The lab’s current work is focused on transitioning data center design from air cooling to primarily warm water liquid cooling, which improves all the metrics, including power, energy and water usage effectiveness.

Yet, most of the time it comes down to cost.

Developers are looking at how to “green” data centers by using low-emission building materials to aid in creating sustainable ecosystems and ensure efficient waste recycling. Some data centers are being designed with liquid cooling technology and direct-to-chip cooling server racks to prevent overheating.

Plus, innovators such as Google and Iron Mountain have committed to sourcing renewable energy to move to a truly carbon free energy supply.

The costs of the system proposed by WZMH Architects would be between $10 and $15 million, which is much less than the cost of building a traditional power plant. Although it’s less than a power plant, it’s still a hefty amount, so the cost would need to be distributed among the various project stakeholders and benefactors.

Detailing the Design

Lytle has been working with WZMH to create what they call a GENeBLOK, which is a carbon positive concrete block system that stores the wasted energy from the generator test firings and then can provide it to neighboring residences as it’s needed. The GENeBLOK actually decouples the generators from the residential building systems, providing a win-win for all parties.

The GENeBLOK is an electrical connection to the data center generators. The wasted energy from generator testing is fed to motors that are part of GENeBLOK, which also has a system of concrete weights. As the concrete weights are raised and lowered, they regenerate energy through the motors. This energy is then fed to an adjacent battery plant for storage.

This type of gravity storage can be cheaper than lithium ion batteries, including construction, running costs and maintenance, according to a recent article in Science Magazine. But, the technology is nascent, so more data needs to be collected.  

The battery plant is a green energy source for nearby housing. All of this is possible through a DC microgrid that WZMH also designed to provide a more sustainable, resilient avenue of energy for housing as it becomes a greater concern from the climate events that are disrupting service for so many across the country on a regular basis.

“Resilience is the ability of a system to absorb abnormalities without experiencing a permanent change to functionality,” said Lytle. “Buildings need to provide power that occupants need. Today, there usually is a single source and single point of failure. But, with a DC microgrid, it’s multiple, diversified sources. By diversifying those sources, you can significantly reduce the likelihood that they will all drop out at the same time.”

A DC microgrid community is possible now as more of the electronic devices we use day to day are DC-based and the renewable energy systems that we are using more in housing design are also DC-based. WZMH’s DC microgrid community idea includes battery storage systems, like the GENeBLOK, that are capturing energy from a variety of sources.

There are other benefits. A DC microgrid would be able to operate independently if there was a loss of the normal AC, or alternating current, supply from the utility. Plus, DC power distribution can provide efficiency gains due to the reduction in AC/DC transformation.

In the future, WZMH believes that we can build systems that are independent of utility grids. Radewych and Lytle envision many opportunities to tap into the surrounding environment to make it work, such as with flooring that generates power, elevators, body heat from occupants, captured rainwater, recycling artificial light and waste heat, and the list goes on.

“Residential, commercial, and retail don’t all operate the same way or use energy at the same time,” said Radewych. “There is an opportunity to have complimentary conditions to transfer energy when it’s needed.”