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Private lecturer Thorsten Urbaneck heads the Thermal Energy Storage division at the chair for Technical Thermodynamics at Chemnitz University of Technology.
© Wolfgang Thieme, TU Chemnitz
BINE interview with Thorsten Urbaneck from the Chemnitz University of Technology

Researchers at Chemnitz University of Technology are testing how the electricity and cooling energy requirements of data centres can be met in combination with renewable energy.
© Thorsten Urbaneck, TU Chemnitz

“Secure provision of data centres with renewable energies”

The RenewIT project is researching how data centres can make greater use of renewable energies. That is an important goal for project partner Thorsten Urbaneck, who is a private lecturer at Chemnitz University of Technology. This is because it is estimated that data centres consume two per cent of the electricity used in Europe – and the trend is increasing.

BINE Information Service: Mr Urbaneck, with the research project you want to ensure that data centres make greater use of renewable energies. How can fluctuating energy flows be reconciled with data centres that run around the clock?

Urbaneck: Actually quite well. Various processes, such as scientific simulations that often take several days, can be easily shifted. When renewable energy is available – and that particularly applies to the electricity supply, it is possible to work ecologically and, above all, cost-effectively. The currently much-discussed surpluses could be used sensibly. That’s why we need to bring the IT and energy specialists under one roof.

In future, data centres will therefore be able to adapt themselves time-wise to the energy provision. Is that also possible in spatial terms?

Urbaneck: Modern technologies also enable the shifting of jobs. One of our visions is that we can transfer tasks in Europe according to the amount of renewable energy available. For this purpose, IT specialists from Barcelona are developing a special operating system in the project.

Data centres require electricity and cooling energy. How can these energy flows be optimised and combined together?

Urbaneck: The electricity in the data centre is converted into heat – that is the energy aspect. We then need to extract this heat with a cooling system. This is where we want to deploy renewables, for example cold air from the surroundings or cold groundwater. A further alternative is to use the waste heat for heating purposes. That is particularly interesting in northern and central Europe.

One outcome of your research is intended to be a planning tool that is freely available online. What is the purpose of it?

Urbaneck: We must provide the IT specialists with information so that decisions can be better underpinned in future. Diverse types of information and complex relationships can be better integrated in a central program. These could include weather data, load profiles, typical systems and so on. In the early planning phase, the operator of the data centre can enter its parameters and try out different variants. A simulation runs in the background and determines the energy consumption, proportion of renewable energy, estimated costs and various characteristic values for assessment.

The Chemnitz University of Technology has considerable expertise in the cooling field, particularly with cold water. Very successful, for example, was the integration of a large cooling storage system in the Chemnitz district cooling network, which was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. In which areas can you apply this special expertise?

Urbaneck: In recent years we have managed to realise several projects with large-scale cold water storage systems. Water is also becoming commercially established as an ecological refrigerant in the industrial and municipal sectors. Data centres are already being supplied via district cooling networks, which provides a secure supply solution. In future, however, we will work with higher temperatures in order to increase the overall efficiency and increase the share of renewables.

The cooling strategies differ depending on the location of the data centre. Aren’t other solutions required in southern Italy than, for example, in Sweden?

Urbaneck: There you are touching on an important aspect. It is often emphasised that renewables fluctuate across time and that they are available by different amounts in different places. However, we can use and combine different technologies – an aspect which is completely underestimated. For example, we have high solar irradiation in southern Europe. This is beneficial for photovoltaics and solar thermal energy. In northern Europe we have a cold climate and the areas for wind turbines are distributed differently. Overall, the situation looks very promising.



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Interview partner
TU Chemnitz, PTT