Google plans to to reuse heat after expanding a data center for AI

/ An illustration of the Google logo.

Google’s data centers are expanding to support its AI ambitions, and a new project in Finland shows one way the company is trying to grapple with the environmental impact of that growth.

Google will drop €1 billion (roughly $1.1 billion) to expand its data center in Finland to “further unlock the potential of AI,” the company said in an emailed press release today. It includes plans to reuse heat from the data center to warm nearby homes, schools, and public buildings.

Already energy-hungry data centers are now even more energy intensive when used for AI. Reusing the server heat is one way to mitigate the effects that AI has on the power grid and environment. After all, if Google isn’t careful, its scramble to inject AI into Search and other products could derail the company’s climate goals and place added pressure on energy systems where it operates.

The announced expansion of its Finland data center comes on the heels of the Google I/O event last week that showcased Google’s search engine revamped with generative AI and a faster version of its Gemini model. AI was uttered no less than 121 times at the event, and infused into everything from vacation planning and scam detection tools to virtual assistants.

Training and running AI requires new and more powerful data centers, which risks stressing out power grids with soaring electricity demand. There’s also growing concern about fossil fuel power plants meeting that demand at a time when they need to be replaced with renewable energy to keep climate change from becoming a bigger disaster.

To literally take some of the heat off the expansion of its Finland data center, Google struck up a partnership with the municipality of Hamina and the city-owned energy provider Haminan Energia. By 2025, they plan to recover heat from the data center’s servers and send it to homes and public buildings in the area.

This is the first project of its kind for Google, which says it’s providing the heat free of cost. Google’s been reusing that heat for its own offices on site for nearly a decade. As the data center expands and uses more energy, Google plans to share that heat to meet 80 percent of annual heating demand for the local district. And since Google purchases carbon pollution-free energy to match 97 percent of the data center’s energy consumption, the heat it provides to Haminan Energia will also be considered a mostly clean source of energy.

To be sure, this is just one local step toward tackling a huge global challenge. Google hasn’t released an updated sustainability report since July 2023, before it was neck-deep in its Gemini era. But some of its competitors in the AI arena are already seeing their greenhouse gas emissions grow as they expand their data centers. Microsoft for one, has seen its emissions rise 30 percent since making a big climate pledge in 2020.

Google has pledged to reach net zero carbon dioxide emissions, which involves capturing or offsetting as much planet-heating CO2 as it releases, by 2030. That gets a lot harder to do if its energy consumption is going through the roof thanks to AI.