Europe needs to be aware of the costs of hosting massive data centers
The writer is director of international policy at the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University.
Asked about plans to develop a “hyperscale” data center on one of the few open land areas in the Netherlands, Facebook replied: “We are not responding to rumors.
Meanwhile, the company has hired high-end engineering and law firms to advance its interests and help build Europe’s largest data center.
Former Dutch Minister of Economy and Climate Eric Wiebes was persuaded to sign an exceptional access to the local high-voltage grid. New schools often wait years for similar approvals.
Information on this contract only became public after requests for freedom of information from journalists. The final decision to sell 166 hectares of farmland to Facebook was then approved by Zeewolde city council last week.
Egge Jan de Jonge, a local alderman, conceded that the city will “play the Champions League from scratch”. The question now is whether small towns like Zeewolde, which has a population of just 23,000, measure up to the big companies of Silicon Valley.
In another small Dutch town, Wieringermeer, the erection of 82 wind turbines was initially touted as a sustainable energy solution that would provide electricity to 370,000 homes. Still, Microsoft ended up buying most of the production. The company recently admitted that it shouldn’t have been so secretive about its plans to build a large-scale center there.
In the United States, Google is also known to use shell companies, which leads to less public scrutiny. The Google and Microsoft data centers in Wieringermeer alone are expected to consume around 525 cubic meters of drinking water per hour, or a total of 4.6 million cubic meters per year.
As European leaders seek to curb the power of Big Techs, national and local governments are rolling out the red carpet. Tax breaks and access to subsidized energy contracts and farmland make it easier to build large-scale data centers across Europe by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. Significant effects on the use of energy, water and land are expected for decades to come.
Already, the storage and transmission of data, as well as the mining of cryptocurrencies, consume around 2.5% of the world’s electricity consumption. A study in Denmark, which is home to several large data centers, predicts that 15% of the country’s energy use by 2030 will be needed to power them.
Tech companies are now buying renewable energy to reduce their carbon footprint. In 2018, for example, Facebook was the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy.
Gradually, however, the political retreat deepened. Ireland has been hosting tech companies for some time, but is changing course now that EirGrid expects data centers to use almost 30% of Ireland’s electricity by 2028. The 30 New data centers that are planned in the country should pledge to work with the authorities to avoid power outages of the type that China suffers from excessive industrial use.
Meanwhile, in the Frankfurt area of Germany, representatives of the Green Party have called for a decision on the feasibility of energy pledges around a data center project.
In practice, the use of waste heat from data centers is often questionable. And although job creation in local communities is often promised as a beneficial consequence of such projects, it is not always achieved.
As the demand for cloud computing, AI, streaming services, and crypto mining increases, so does the need for data centers. Yet a healthy democratic debate about the costs and benefits of hosting these facilities is impossible without corporate transparency about the process.
Instead of leaving the decision to the lowest levels of government, or allowing companies to pit European, national and local politicians against each other, a more integrated vision is needed.
And it is essential to keep track of the sum of a series of decisions made at the local level. Noord-Holland, a province of 4000 km², is currently home to 57 data centers. Maybe every carefully calibrated planning app sounded compelling, but do the demands for water, power, and land really add up?
So-called techlash has spared data centers so far, but that could change soon unless businesses and governments change their behavior.