Now that’s Neighborly: Data Center Waste Water will Heat Amazon’s New High-Rises

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“The idea makes so much sense that it prompts one to wonder why no one thought of this before.”

So writes Marc Stiles, a reporter for the Puget Sound Business Journal in a piece he wrote about Amazon striking a deal to use heated waste water from a Seattle data center to heat a high-rise office complex Amazon is building across the street. (I learned about it from my friend Paul McNamara’s Buzzblog column, which referenced the Stiles story.)

This bit from Stiles’ story sums it up:

Once it’s implemented, Amazon will save three-quarters of the electricity it would have bought for heat otherwise, according to McKinstry, a Seattle construction and energy services company. In addition, the operator of the data center, Clise Properties, will save some money on electricity and a lot of water. Earlier this year, Clise and McKinstry formed a company called Eco District to design and build the system.

The Clise data center is housed in the Westin Building on Sixth Ave. in Seattle. Amazon is building a massive office campus across the street, totaling more than 4 million square feet. Here’s how the system will work, according to Stiles:

Think of the system as a loop. Water used to cool the data center will run from the Westin in a 14-inch pipe under Sixth Avenue to the basement of one of Amazon’s high-rises, where a 400,000-gallon reservoir is going in, along with a heat recovery chiller plant. This plant will extract the heat that will be used to heat Amazon’s buildings. The cooled down water will then run back under Sixth in a parallel pipe to the data center where it will be used again to extract more heat.

Brilliant, right? Amazon gets cleaner, lower-cost heat while the data center conserves tons of water, saves on electric costs and probably lowers its costs for getting rid of waste water as well.

The idea itself isn’t new, as it’s basically a hydronic heating system, where warm water is used to supply heat. (I once lived in a house built in the 1950s that used an under floor radiant heating system, based on warm water flowing through copper pipes. It worked great and felt great on your feet – at least until the pipes burst and you had to replace the whole thing with baseboards. Which is why today they use plastic tubing.) But the idea of using a data center as a source of already heated water makes this project, apparently, a first.

It’s not at all surprising that Seattle should be at the forefront of such an endeavor. A guest blogger on this site wrote a few months ago about Seattle 2030 District as an example of the kind of public/private partnerships it’s going to take to bring the smart city concept to life. Here’s how he described the idea:

The 2030 District is a public-private collaborative whose members include property owners and managers, professional stakeholders including engineering firms and consultants, and community stakeholders such as the City of Seattle and various conservation-minded groups. By the year 2030, the goal is to reduce by 50% CO2 emissions from buildings, consumption of fossil fuels for energy, and water consumption. For new construction, the goal is for the buildings to be carbon-neutral by the same year.

The Amazon project doesn’t appear to be part of the 2030 District but the idea is certainly in line with their plans. And the Amazon project appears to have the backing of the city government.

According to a report from GeekWire, the Seattle City Council has already approved a couple of resolutions having to do with the project. And it sounds like more, similar projects may be in store, at least judging from these comments from Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien:

“I see this project as a first step toward what I hope to be a district wide energy system, that we can build off this as a catalyst.”

The city has identified a couple of other sources of wasted heat, including the data centers at Fisher Plaza and a sewer line running through South Lake Union, that it hopes building owners will tap into.

To encourage this kind of thinking, the city is offering credit to owners of new construction who build in so-called hydronic heat systems, O’Brien said.

Something tells me we’re going to be hearing lots more about this idea going forward.

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