For Sustainability, Buildings and Energy are Strategic Resources

Reduce, reuse, recycle, that’s what we are told when it comes to environmental sustainability. But how does this apply to data centers, that are inevitably energy-heavy and often built from scratch? I’ve been thinking about the conversion of brownfield sites into data centers a lot recently, and I’m not the only one – consider Google’s lecture about how it turned a paper mill into a data center.

The repurposing and reuse of abandoned buildings, especially brownfields, is not new and doesn’t need anything to do with IT. Back in 2010, an abandoned mall in Cleveland became an urban farm; and in Leipzig, once famous for its printers, print shops have become lofts and business premises.

A former colliery on the banks of the river Ruhr, closed in the 1990s, is now a ski arena; and a related steel plant has become a residential, recreational, and work area. In Munich, a former chip factory became offices. Before the semiconductor age, it was an iron factory. The irony of fate: Today, they would like to have the chip factory back…

Industrial brownfields are also well suited for redevelopment as data centers (or other tech labs). They generally benefit from robust infrastructure, as well as satisfying building technology requirements such as industrial-grade power and water utilities, and internal infrastructure such as cabling. 

A prestigious example is Mare Nostrum, in Barcelona, a high-performance computing center in a chapel. I find the symbolism intriguing: Technology as a new world religion, perhaps? But given the numbers of abandoned churches, especially in Europe, this is certainly not the last rededication of a place of worship.

Reuse does not stop with physical infrastructure, but also with the energy itself – which (according to the first law of thermodynamics) cannot be used up, only redistributed. Secondary buildings can be straightforwardly supplied with data center waste products such as cooling water and waste heat. 

Indoor farms can immediately benefit from this idea. One pioneer in the ‘field’ is BlockHeating, which recognizes that a ‘regular’ data center generates more residual heat than a greenhouse needs.

Multi-story farms could be the answer, solving problems in quite a different way from recycling existing resources. 

As shown in the diagram, at the lower level is an algae, fish, mussel, crab, or lobster farm; above come the plants; and at the top insects, including a flower meadow on the roof, for honey bees. Water from the aquariums is filtered by the plants, which are grateful for the fish-generated nutrients – just like in nature. Source energy comes from solar panels on walls on rooftops and wind turbines on the grounds.

The creation of farmed products also drives local sourcing – data center providers could supply their canteens with food from their own production, saving packaging, emissions and otherwise contributing to saving the planet.

Such principles remain for high-efficiency hyperscaler data centers, as well as large industrial plants and businesses that run their own data centers (and the trend is going back to that, thanks to the edge, hybrid cloud and data sovereignty), or even large telcos. 

This can also work on a small scale. In northern Germany, pilot projects are underway in which villages and smaller communities are supplied with energy and heat from their own combined heat and power plants, based on decentralized underground mini data centers. 

Another pioneer in this space is Cloud&Heat, which uses decentralized data centers in the basements of buildings, including residential buildings, and the waste heat from IT facilities to heat the building (see diagram).

Whilst initial attempts back in 2016 (article in German) did not catch on, an unexpected new push could come from Web 3’s decentralization of the Internet, its services and applications, and indeed from edge computing and processing. One Polish startup dedicated to sustainability is developing solutions for distributed and edge workloads, as well as extremely dense data centers.

Ultimately, if we assume that the demand for computing power will continue to increase (and it shows no signs of slowing) then a combination of data centers and energy reuse is obvious. Considering the unsolved problems of climate change, it is imperative we look for better ways of managing resources.

As society evolves, so do industry, working, living, and lifestyle habits. We need to be reviewing our use of physical infrastructure, and the energy it requires, constantly. I could take this further – reuse can also be applied to the data we generate, and the insights created from processing it – take a look at WindHPC for an example.

We are all on a journey. Unfortunately, the latest generation MareNostrum5 could no longer be housed in the former chapel, but required a new building – showing the limits of reusing existing infrastructure. Nonetheless, by thinking about our physical, energy, and other resources as reusable assets, we will avoid the costs of creation from scratch. Which has to be a good thing.