back to article Wholesome: Waste heat from coal power station turned data centre to help grow veggies

Digital Crossroads, the company converting an old coal-fired power station near Chicago into a giant colocation data centre, will use server heat to help agricultural efforts at the nearby Purdue Uni Northwest. The campus will feature a system to recapture waste heat – which is usually simply vented into the atmosphere – and …

  1. Swarthy Silver badge
    Coat

    At first, this idea left me cold, but I'm starting to warm up to it.

  2. chivo243 Silver badge

    wonderful concept

    I believe the efficiency of our energy use is woefully poor and extremely shortsighted. I would love to work at a facility like this one. I'm glad this endeavor will be associated an educational institution.

    1. Korev Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: wonderful concept

      I had a tour around a Swiss University's shiny new datacentre. Apparently they asked the architects to reuse the heat, they responded by asking if they could guarantee that the computers in there in a couple of decades time would be similar and they had to answer no. Sadly the heat now just warms the local city...

      1. Killing Time

        Re: wonderful concept

        It's a nice idea to reuse waste heat however from a engineering point of view, that energy supply needs to be predictable and within certain parameters otherwise you need to put in place parallel systems either to make up the shortfall and/or deal with the surplus energy along with those systems incumbent costs. This makes the potential uses for low grade waste heat fairly limited.

        The use in agriculture isn't new, there have been a number of previous projects which use biodigesters and gas engines with the exhaust heat ( including CO2 enrichment) being used in large scale greenhouses.

        Despite the headline, no doubt the big driver in location of this project is the existing grid connection infrastructure. Having done some work on similar projects in the past I will say that a high proportion of the initial project cost for something like this would be swallowed up by the HV Multi MW supply infrastructure rather than the processing hardware itself.

        If you have a suitable use for the waste heat in close proximity which can cope with varying energy input then all the better, its a win win.

        This variability in waste heat energy output is alluded to in the article with the reference to use of the lake for additional cooling.

        Good luck to them in using that waste energy in a beneficial manner.

        1. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: wonderful concept

          "that energy supply needs to be predictable and within certain parameters "

          For a server farm, the heat will be predictable within certain limits. At least enough so that minimum heat output would be the input figure for the greenhouse set up.

      2. Claverhouse Silver badge

        Re: wonderful concept

        The fact a service will be only used for a decade or 2 seems no reason to forgo that service.

        If someone offered me free phone usage but only for a year, one might as well go for it.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: wonderful concept

          It would depend on the investment you have to write off to make the change, the investment needed for the change, the investment you'd need to make to replace it when the service became unavailable and the amount of notice you'd get if it were to become unavailable. With a free phone service that might not amount to much. With a district heating system it might amount to a good deal more than the value of the heat

    2. harmjschoonhoven
      Facepalm

      Re: wonderful concept

      The Hoogheemraadschap De Stichtse Rijnlanden * is building a 25 MW heat pump to use the waste heat from water (i.e. shit &c.) purifucation for district heating.

      The next thing I read was that 18 mature trees wil be cut to make way for the new pipelines ....

      * Also responsible for keeping our Dutch feet dry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBHCOwp2Zgg

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Circle(Circuit) of Life

    Silicon induced Veggies,

    Probably will work better than the idea old printers would help replenish the ozone layer.

  4. Rupert Fiennes Silver badge

    Uses for heat

    A former employer used natural air circulation for cooling, PUE of 1.1 or so. The heated air was utterly unused until one of the staff realised under the exhaust point was the perfect location to do some Vikram yoga :-)

  5. Char Gar Gothakon

    Thanks El Reg

    I never expected what to me is a local project -- I live not far away from the site -- and see a picture of it here.

  6. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    I thought....

    I thought from the headline that they'd simply built large greenhouses next door to the data centre and were just pumping the exhaust heat directly. No need for expensive heat pumps etc. Most new data centres seem to be in the middle of nowhere, so it would seem natural to use the waste heat for greenhouse farming.

    1. G R Goslin

      Re: I thought....

      Unfortunately.the waste heat is usually wrapped in an enormous amount of air.Unless you can find ways of raising plants in a perpetual gale, you have to concentrate it in order to use it in a quiet environment

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: I thought....

        "you have to concentrate it"

        Not always. Matrix heat exchangers work relatively well if there's a difference and air-to-water exchangers make heat transfer over distances relatively easy (warming the soil is more effective than warming the air anyway)

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: I thought....

        "Unfortunately.the waste heat is usually wrapped in an enormous amount of air.Unless you can find ways of raising plants in a perpetual gale, you have to concentrate it in order to use it in a quiet environment"

        More conventional glass house heating systems used hot water but they didn't put the plants in a shower bath.

  7. joed

    dumping heat into the lake is not so great

    once you consider environmental impact. They should rather reuse all the hot water within/nearby their facility.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: dumping heat into the lake is not so great

      Maybe the former power station did that and they plan to re-use the plumbing.

      1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

        Re: dumping heat into the lake is not so great

        The former power station burnt coal but thankfully they're not planning on reusing the boilers. Sometimes reuse just isn't that good an idea.

  8. Kiwi Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Cool!

    Now that's how you take care of the environment fella's. Don't worry about the big-scale stuff which you can't do anything about, but instead make as big a difference as you can in your local area, finding ways to use 'waste' energy or resources to help the planet, and reducing where you can.

    (Just hope the powerco's plans to switch to wind/solar work, instead of failing like so many others have done in the past :( )

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Cool!

      "powerco's plans to switch to wind/solar"

      Will probably fail without massive direct and indirect subsidies.

      Large windmills have an alarming tendency to self-destruct and in the process toss bits of themselves considerable distances. Solar is peaky. Neither even _begin_ to make sense without forcing the generator to install buffering systems.

      1. Kiwi Silver badge

        Re: Cool!

        Large windmills have an alarming tendency to self-destruct and in the process toss bits of themselves considerable distances. Solar is peaky. Neither even _begin_ to make sense without forcing the generator to install buffering systems.

        Hence the issues I have with wind, which I used to be very pro till I was told to actually research it.

        At least grid-scale storage batteries are looking interesting - so long as the ecological impact (mining materials etc) isn't worse than burning coal would be.

  9. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    While reusing waste heat is undoubtedly beneficial

    Wouldn't we be better off not generating the waste heat in the first place?

    1. joeW Silver badge

      Re: While reusing waste heat is undoubtedly beneficial

      Young man, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics.

    2. DontFeedTheTrolls Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: While reusing waste heat is undoubtedly beneficial

      It's only waste if you don't do anything with it and just throw it away. It might not be the most efficient way to generate heat, but synergy is about mutual benefit.

  10. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Cooling towers

    I've had thoughts like this when driving past power plants with big cooling towers. Not only would the heat be useful, the CO2 from combustion (coal, natural gas) facilities could be used for growing some foods in elevated CO2 environments. I seem to recall some experiments with butterball lettuce grown hydroponically in a high CO2 greenhouse that was human free (so workers wouldn't drop dead). Starter boards with holes for the lettuce were locked in one side and floated around a water track and by the time they reached the other lock, they were ready to harvest. I think the biggest problem was algae growth in the water which they solved with dark plastic or something.

    Fully Charged Show on YouTube did an episode on Sunamp (sunamp.co.uk) where they had a barge with a heat storage system that was charged up with the waste heat from a power plant, moved across the river and plugged into a municipal heating system. Two barges were used so one would be collecting heat while the other was discharging. Brilliant. Iceland does the same thing with piping the down stream heat from their geothermal power stations to a city heat utility for heating buildings, streets and residential water.

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Cooling towers

      "Iceland does the same thing with piping the down stream heat from their geothermal power stations "

      Battersea power station's waste heat used to provide district heating to a bunch of nearby buildings.

      It's an old concept - so old that the "Heat" part of the "Heat and light" in Edison's original power stations referred to district heating, not electricity.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Cooling towers

        "Battersea power station's waste heat used to provide district heating to a bunch of nearby buildings."

        Dolphin Square across the Thames.

    2. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Re: Cooling towers

      I like district heating - it is a way of giving something back to the community in which businesses sit. So often you get a big concern that just causes inconvenience to those living around it - such as the huge farm near me that employs no one local, but causes inconvenience through the number of tractors and HGVs - but puts nothing in place to assuage the ill-feeling caused.

      1. kamelkamel

        Re: Cooling towers

        "that energy supply needs to be predictable and within certain parameters "

        For a server farm, the heat will be predictable within certain limits. At least enough so that minimum heat output would be the input figure for the greenhouse set up.

  11. Claverhouse Silver badge

    Seems very good all round.

  12. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    What happened about that company that was going to install servers in people's homes to power the central heating systems? Maybe it failed when the people found they couldn't turn off the heating in summer. Not that that would have been an issue so far this year.

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