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Seattle's Plan To Warm City With Data Center Waste Heat

City officials want to recycle waste heat from nearby data centers to provide sustainable heat and hot water to buildings.

Efforts to reuse the heat that data center operators work so hard to extract are nothing new. But officials in Seattle are hoping to take things one step further.

The Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment is developing a plan to reuse waste heat from nearby data centers and other sources to power a so-called “district heating” system that would deliver sustainable hot water and heat to buildings in the city’s South Lake Union and Denny Triangle neighborhoods. The city is working with tenants, local heating utility Seattle Steam, and Corix, a Vancouver, Ontario-based provider of sustainable utility infrastructures, on the plan.

While the project is only in a discussion phase, a full analysis should be completed by late November, at which point the plan would be presented to the mayor’s office, and potentially the city council.

“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback and interest from developers,” Christie Baumel, climate protection advisor for the Sustainability & Environment office, said in a phone interview. “But we’re still in the middle of doing analysis. No one has signed on the dotted line, but we’re very hopeful -- we think this is great opportunity.”

Baumel said the city has been looking at pursuing a modern version of district heating -- once used in many cities for centrally pooling and distributing heat to homes and office buildings using various heat sources -- since 2009. It was inspired, in part, by the successful effort in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the Olympic Village in False Creek and the downtown core are already served by district heating systems.

That said, the Seattle plan’s data center component appears to be something new, at least in the U.S. A similar effort to channel waste heat from data centers is underway in the UK. city of Leeds.

“Data centers just generate a lot of heat,” Baumel said. “Right now, that has to be mechanically pushed out of their buildings, and it just goes up into atmosphere. Why not channel it into hot water pipes?”

[Read how data center operators are overwhelmed by outages in "Data Center Outages Haunt IT Pros, Study Shows."]

Seattle is targeting two data center co-location facilities in its plan: Fisher Plaza and Westin Building Exchange. Both have expressed initial interest, assuming the economics make sense, Baumel said.

With the abundance of large sewer lines and the presence of a local steam system -- two other sources of waste heat -- the building blocks are in place to bring the plan to fruition. In the meantime, Corix is in the process of performing an analysis of the proposed system’s viability, both in terms of cost and its ability to be priced competitively, and the city’s staff is working to build interest among all the potential stakeholders.

Among the buildings that could potentially be heated by the system would be the new headquarters complex Amazon hopes to build in the South Lake Union area.

Baumel says a district heating system would benefit Seattle in two ways: It would introduce a more environmentally friendly source of heating, and it would help move the needle on the city’s efforts to make itself more sustainable.

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