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The Thermify HeatHub is designed to be around the size of a combi boiler, to make it easy to install in homes. Image: Thermify.
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Could modular data centres heat Britain’s homes? A look at Thermify’s HeatHub

The Thermify HeatHub is designed to be around the size of a combi boiler, to make it easy to install in homes. Image: Thermify.

Decarbonising heat in the UK is set to be one of the key challenges to reaching net zero. Currently, home heating accounts for around 14% of the country's emissions, with the vast majority of them relying of gas boilers for heating.

Along with decarbonisation of heat, other sectors are emerging as challenges for a low carbon society, including data centres.

According to Garry Felgate, co-founder of Thermify, these centres are going to have enormous cooling demand with 30% of their energy costs are for cooling as the computers used within them pump out vast amounts of excess heat.

Felgate saw within this an opportunity, and began asking: “What if you could use that waste heat to heat homes? How might be the best way of doing it? At a very early stage, we filed a patent for the concept of on demand heat from the computer processing.”

Thermify is therefore a solution based on the idea of using electricity twice, using it for both data processing through the Thermify Cloud and heat through its HeatHub simultaneously by dividing up data centres into modules fitted within homes.

The HeatHub includes 450 Raspberry Pi processors, which collectively sit in a box the size of a combi boiler. The heat generated by undertaking cloud computing tasks contracted to the company will be used to heat a water tank over the course of about two hours.

“In the early days, we heated a radiator, and a small bucket of water,” explained Felgate. “So that was really the gestation of the company, and we haven’t moved very far from it.”

Thermify will sign contracts for distributed data processing services, the funds from which will subsidise the cost of the heat to the homeowner. Image: Thermify.
Thermify will sign contracts for distributed data processing services, the funds from which will subsidise the cost of the heat to the homeowner. Image: Thermify.

The Thermify HeatHub is currently at 80% efficiency, with the company targeting 90% going forwards.

A key advantage of the company’s solution in comparison with other electrified solutions such as heat pumps is the cost of the energy said Felgate. This follows concern around the impact of the cost of electricity on the switch to low carbon solutions due to environmental levies being weighted towards electricity rather than gas, driving up the cost.

“We're saying that we're going to replace gas with electricity, and electricity is four times the price. Now the heat pump is a good example of overcoming challenges with efficiencies and so on. But nonetheless, how do you make it affordable?

“Well, we've turned that completely on its head because the person who's paying for the energy is the person doing the compute, not the person getting the heat. So we completely change around the pricing model. And we're basically going to sell the heat at the same price that a person would pay for the gas boiler.”

There are additional benefits to the solution, like easier maintenance due to the modular design of the solution. For both the purchaser of the compute power and the household using the heat, a processor failure means you will loose a 450th of the power. The processors are also easily switched out, as they are designed to be plug and play.

Whilst this eases the process of maintaining the systems, Felgate did state staffing was a general problem in terms of the decarbonisation of heat. Last week (11 August) the Heat Pump Association announced that it was launching a new training course to help tackle the growing demand for skilled heat pump engineers for example.

“I think the UK as a whole has a series of staffing issues,” added Felgate. “We're still installing 1.7 million gas boilers a year, and we have the skills to do that. The industry is going to generally have to retrain because we're not going to need gas fitters anymore, we're going to need people who are skilled in electronics. And as such, we will be looking at partners with whom we can work with that.”

Initially, Thermify is targeting new builds, but expects to expand its offering to the 11 million homes in Great Britain that have a hot water tank after. The company is currently working to get its first devices installed in homes over the next 12 months, and then scaling up production through 2022-24.

“Our business plan has us selling 40,000 units a year,” added Felgate. “The Committee on Climate Change is saying you need to replace 20,000 units a week to achieve our 2050 targets so we're two weeks work in terms of our business plan.

“And it's an interesting question, how do we compare with other solutions? There is so much to be done, it is of the scale of the introduction of North Sea gas in the early seventies. There's so much to be done that every solution is going to be needed to decarbonise our heat.”

Editorial

Molly Lempriere Deputy Editor, Current±

Molly Lempriere is deputy editor at Solar Media, responsible for its UK-facing publications Solar Power Portal and Current±.

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