September 30, 2014

Amazon's plans for a new Seattle office campus have gotten a bit of press lately. What has been less widely covered is Amazon's unique plan to recycle heat generated from a nearby data centre facility to heat these new office buildings.

The data centre real estate being tapped is owned by Clise Properties and Digital Realty in a joint venture. As a member of the Digital Realty team, I consulted on the project and got a firsthand look at this innovative solution. This recycling of heat is what’s called a hydronic heat system. Amazon's new Seattle office buildings will recycle "waste heat" from a nearby data centre in the Westin Building.

In a more typical setup, the heat generated by the data centre would go through a cooling tower system and would then be released into the atmosphere - a loss of heat. In this novel design, by contrast, the Westin Building architects came up with the idea to court the heat from the data centre into a heat exchanger. The system transfers the heat from the data centre via heated water piped underground to the Amazon buildings. The water is then returned to the Westin Building once it's cooled down to help cool the data centre.

Quoted in a recent article published on GeekWire, Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien said, “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.”

A very worthy, and green, goal indeed.

It's worth noting, however, that a hydronic system such as this one would probably have been cost-prohibitive elsewhere. In this case, the system penciled out partly because putting in more cooling towers was not an option - they wouldn't have been permitted by the City of Seattle.

In addition, the city offers credits to owners of new construction who incorporate hydronic heat systems. Lastly, the downtown location of the data centres increased the symbiosis of the opportunity.

As the saying goes, "Necessity is the mother of invention." Amazon's unique situation here led to a very interesting use of the heat generated by a nearby data centre.

Danny Johnson, Director of Technical Operations, Digital Realty

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