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We can’t allow Google to waste its surplus heat

The new Google data centre being built in Skien is in danger of wasting its surplus heat because Norway has no legislation that reduces this risk. We really need to address this issue!

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. 

The recent news that Google intends to build one of the largest data centres in the world  in Skien in Telemark, caused much jubilation among local politicians in the town hall. However, some of the comments that national broadcaster NRK received indicate that far from everyone living in the area is applauding the NOK 6.8 billion investment.

Some people are concerned about the destruction of the natural world. Others that the centre’s energy demands may increase electricity prices.

Questions were also raised about the potential use of surplus heat. There’s nothing strange about this because, according to some calculations, the centre will generate enough surplus to meet the heating needs of up to 600,000 apartments.

More than empty rhetoric

All of this throws us into the core of the same debate that preoccupied world leaders at the last Climate Change Summit (COP28). The agreement reached at COP28 states that more efficient energy use must be seen as the ‘most important priority’, and must thus be at the heart of all political decisions, planning and investment.

Many initiatives are needed the world over if any of this is to become more than just empty rhetoric. Google’s invasion of Telemark highlights how just one of these initiatives should be implemented here in Norway.

In my opinion, the Norwegian state should have legislation in place that forces municipalities to ensure that one of two things happens in these situations:

  • Either the municipality must attempt to ensure that new facilities generating large volumes of heat should be located close to existing industrial centres that can make use of the surplus. 
  • Or it must work to achieve the opposite. Companies with given heating requirements should be persuaded to establish themselves in the vicinity of facilities offering large volumes of surplus heat. In other words – identify and implement measures that incentivise businesses to establish so-called ‘symbiotic clusters’.

More than what the Norwegian government has proposed

The Norwegian government’s recent energy efficiency action plan states that so-called ‘energy intensity’, which is the volume of domestic energy we use divided by our gross national product (GDP), must be 30 percent higher in 2030 than in 2015.

To date, the government has proposed a minor amendment to the current Energy Act. New facilities with production capacities of 20 MW or more (equivalent to that of twenty thousand 1000 Watt panel heaters) must perform a cost-benefit analysis of how they utilise their surplus heat. The same applies to data centres with capacities in excess of 2 MW.

This is a step in the right direction, but we should really be expecting more robust action in the wake of the establishment of the huge Google facility in Skien.

Electricity and heat – different under the law

The more surplus heat from industrial facilities that we use to develop and streamline neighbouring businesses, the less we will need to expand the electricity grid.

A possibly drastic, but targeted, measure for achieving this will be to ensure that the ‘polluter’ pays. In other words, introduce the mindset that emissions of heat constitute ‘pollution’ or an undesirable utilisation of resources.

The resources electricity and heat are currently treated differently under the Energy Act because there is no obligation to connect to a grid system in situations involving surplus heat.

No cluster agreements yet

Of the electricity that a typical data centre consumes, 70 per cent is dedicated to the server farm, 25 per cent to cooling, and the rest to lighting and suchlike. All this electricity will be converted into heat. Relatively speaking, such centres are based on low-temperature operation,  but if this heat is to be exploited, it must be done in the immediate vicinity of the data centre.

According to a news programme broadcast by NRK about the Google centre on 13 February this year, Skien municipality is trying to attract businesses that require heat to establish themselves on neighbouring sites. To date, however, no business cluster agreements have been established.

Learning from others

I believe that if we really want to boost our utilisation of surplus heat, we will have to start thinking creatively. The challenges involved vary from sector to sector. Nevertheless, there are big lessons to be learned by exploring the interfaces between our various industrial sectors.

Many businesses, including the energy-hungry ferro-alloy industry, have already achieved a great deal in this field.  But wasted heat continues to be generated here too.

Drying seaweed

On mainland Norway, the majority of unexploited industrial surplus heat is generated by aluminium plants and is more than enough to meet the heating needs of a number of major industrial clusters. However, these plants do not have the right kind of neighbours in place. Nor is the heat that they generate hot enough to be profitably converted into electricity.

Nevertheless, work is now in progress to address this challenge, not least under the auspices of the Research Council of Norway’s HighEFF centre, which hosts the country’s leading research team in the field of industrial energy efficiency.

The centre is looking into the possibility of utilising the surplus heat generated by the aluminium industry for drying seaweeds. These seaweeds can be processed to manufacture biocoal to power green metals production or used as biofuel in the transport sector.

Innovative thinking

Under the COP-28 agreement, Norway is obliged to report annually on its energy efficiency status. Our work at the HighEFF centre has taught us that if we are to incorporate the symbiotic cluster effects generated at the interfaces between sector boundaries, we will have to start thinking innovatively in the field of ‘measurement’.

Thanks to long-term cost-sharing agreements between the Research Council and Norwegian industry, we have acquired a great deal of research-based know-how on how businesses can collaborate to save energy. Now is the time to upscale our embryonic technologies and construct pilot facilities.

After all, the greenest energy sources of all are the ones we refrain from exploiting.

This article was first published in the financial daily Dagens Næringsliv and is reproduced here with the permission of the paper.

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