Steam-Punk Data Centers
Friday, March 7, 2008 at 07:57PM
Toby Considine in Data Center, Microgrids and Distributed Systems, Zero Energy Buildings

Data centers are struggling to shed their ever growing heat loads. They are coming up with more and more creative ways to manage energy use, to interact with building air conditioning, to somehow solve the huge load they place on all the resources of a building. I think that some of the proposals out there right now will sound like steam punk in ten years.

Steam Punk is a genre of science fiction that deals with alternate histories constructed around some small change in discovery preserving a now outmoded technology. What if that small note that was discarded as improbable had been recognized, and developed? What if the Greeks had recognized that their steam toys could do work, and thereby been able to defeat the Romans? What if Archimedes had come up with some of his many inventions at any time other than the siege of Syracuse, launching an early industrial revolution? What if the Chinese had dedicate military explosions to ballistics rather than pyrotechnic shock and awe?

The most popular forms of steam punk present neo-Victorian or neo-Edwardian realities. What if Ada Lovelace’s working computers had been translated into working production system after a chance meeting with James Watt? What if the French had developed the Jacquard loom into an alternate computing engine? What if the Napoleonic wars were thereafter fought using steam-driven military computers as steam-engines drive military dirigibles through the skies?

Zero Net Energy buildings are up and coming. The common core the Zero Net Energy buildings is local storage and conversion of energy. Night-time energy prices are stored in ice for daytime use. Daytime solar energy uses molten salt to buffer electrical generation. Perhaps windmills will pump water to roof-top cisterns for emergency electrical generation. Energy storage and conversion are central to every strategy for near-grid buildings.

The astonishing heat of the data center is an energy source that should be tapped, not dissipated. Data centers can heat office space in winter. If we concentrate rather than diffuse machine heat, we can cool office space, in part, using absorption chillers drive by heat. Domestic hot water could cost the landlord the same as cold water. Shedding heat load simply makes no sense in the zero net energy building.

If a landlord can get a data center paying rent in the basement, while harvesting the heat load to drive building operations, then he is doubly rewarded. The technology is rather straight forward. Understanding the tenant contracts and incentives is something else.

The data center can be the steam plant of tomorrow. Their heat is a resource to be harvested. This will make many of the careful technologies of The Green Grid seem almost quaint. Like the technologies of steam punk.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (
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