Cloud

How sustainable are data centers?

March 21, 2022 - 6 minutes reading time
Article by Anp

Because of increasing Internet use and the growing hunger for data, more data centers are needed. But how sustainable are they? And where should they be built? Proponents and opponents have their say.

We're emailing, streaming, Googling, gaming, apping, YouTubing, Facebooking, Tiktokking and Teams'ing a lot these days. The world is rapidly digitalizing, we work more and more at home and in the cloud, and data is the new oil in this economy. The world already has 4.8 billion internet users. Of the Dutch, 86% are online every day. Internet node AMS-IX in Amsterdam now processes 27 exabytes of data and sees that figure grow by almost 20% annually. This requires more and more data centers.

Pros and cons

The question is whether we want them in the Netherlands. Data centers use enormous amounts of electricity, pollute water and occupy gigantic areas in the open Dutch polder landscape, environmentalists argue. But that electricity is often green and cooling is mainly done with air and also with rainwater. Moreover, you can use the residual heat to heat homes. If we have to build large data centers anyway, it would be best to do it in the Netherlands, say tech and IT companies like Microsoft and Centric.

Contradictio in terminis

Since the announced construction of a 166-hectare hyperscale data center for Meta (Facebook) near Zeewolde, the subject has been high on the political agenda. The Netherlands already has three giants of such kind: one for Microsoft and two for Google, in the Wieringermeer and the Eemshaven. The government has now declared a moratorium on new mega data centers. Guus Dix of Extinction Rebellion was one of the activists in Zeewolde, who occupied the town hall in protest against the arrival of the data center. A sustainable data center is actually a contradiction in terms," says Dix, in daily life a university lecturer at the University of Twente (UT). ,, The energy and water consumption is so high that you cannot say they are sustainable." Professor of Public Administration Michiel de Vries of Radboud University also has a short answer to the question of how sustainable data centers are. "Not. When I see how much electricity they use, how much water, how much noise they produce and what effect these big ugly boxes have on their surroundings, you cannot say they are sustainable," he states.

"Internet traffic has increased tenfold over the past ten years, but the energy consumption of data centers has barely increased."

‐ Rob Elsinga, National Technology Officer (NTO) Microsoft Netherlands.

Green electricity

According to recent figures from CBS (Central Bureau of Statistics), the electricity consumption of data centers increased from 1.6 billion kilowatt hours to 3.2 billion kilowatt hours between 2017 and 2020. Meanwhile, 2.8 percent of national electricity consumption goes to data centers. Five new large data centers were added during that period. But 88% of the power consumed is green, according to industry organization Dutch Data Center Association. Moreover, data centers are by nature energy efficient in order to keep operational costs as low as possible. “Internet traffic has increased tenfold over the past ten years, but the energy consumption of data centers has barely increased," says Rob Elsinga, National Technology Officer (NTO) for Microsoft Netherlands.

Energy-efficient

He says an efficiency drive is underway as companies and institutions close their own small server rooms and store their data in the cloud at larger data centers. That is more efficient, because if China is sleeping the available space can be used for the US and vice versa," he says. According to Elsinga, Dutch data centers are among the most economical in the world in terms of energy consumption - expressed in Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) or Data Center Infrastructure Efficiency (DCiE). This is also the opinion of Rianne Spinka, CSR manager at Centric. ,, Our servers are the most energy efficient available. We have also moved away from our own data centers and rent space for our customers in Equinix's AM4 data center in Amsterdam, among other places. That is one of the most sustainable data centers there is," she says. AM4 is cooled with outside air and, if it is too hot, via an underground water storage facility. The residual heat will soon be supplied to the MeerEnergie heat network in Amsterdam, to which 5,000 homes and others will be connected.

CO2-negative

Microsoft has three data centers in the Netherlands, one of which is a hyperscale data center in Middenmeer, North Holland. These are too far from residential areas to be able to supply residual heat. However, they have been running on green energy since 2012. Through Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) we purchase 100% renewable energy, especially wind energy from Vattenfall and Eneco, but it is not always fully available. In practice, 60% of our energy demand is covered by renewable energy," says Elsinga. Microsoft wants to be energy-neutral by 2030 and even CO2-negative by 2050. This includes capturing and storing CO2 and, through the Rabo Carbon Bank, helping farmers in South America to sequester CO2 in trees and crops. Microsoft also wants to be water-positive by 2030, or in other words add more water than it uses. The Dutch data centers are cooled with outside air 95% of the year. If the outside temperature is too high, they use evaporated water. Together with the Hoogheemraadschap Hollands Noorderkwartier and ECW Energy, the company is investigating a method to collect rainwater and use it for cooling on hot days.

Stricter conditions

Microsoft and Equinix may be leading by example, but according to Professor Michiel de Vries, not all data centers are doing so. It sounds nice, but the reality is different," he says. As a public administration expert, De Vries is mainly targeting the government. According to him, the government should map out the environmental effects at a much earlier stage and impose stricter conditions on data centers. For example, that they use rainwater instead of tap water for cooling. Or that they install solar panels on the roof, so that they need less wind energy. ,, I am not against data centers in principle, but hardly any conditions are set for such a hyperscale center in Zeewolde. Only that there should be a row of indigenous trees around it. Not that there should be solar panels on the roof. That is a missed opportunity," according to De Vries. If it continues like this, data centers will consume 10% to 20% of our electricity. As a government you have to set conditions for this.”

Too many disadvantages

Activist Guus Dix also sees too many disadvantages. He is sad to see how large data centers of Google or Microsoft consume the energy of an entire wind farm. If you zoom out you see that the structural growth in the demand for energy exceeds the growth of renewable energy. Should data centers then appropriate that available green energy, while we also want to get houses and large companies like Tata Steel off the gas?" he wonders. He criticizes the priority given to data centers on the congested power grid, while the connection of solar and wind farms is squeezed. Furthermore, many data centers still use tap water for cooling and add chemicals to it. ,,There are solutions for this, but if it costs too much money they prefer not to do it," says Dix. He also does not want to sacrifice farmland for hyperscale centers. The Netherlands will not become more beautiful by this kind of 'boxing' ", he states.

"Now 1% of all data is used for AI, but by 2025 it will be more than 10%. We are only at the beginning of the revolution."

‐ Rob Elsinga, National Technology Officer (NTO) Microsoft Netherlands.

Especially in the Netherlands

According to Rianne Spinka of Centric, the number of data centers will increase anyway. ,,It is an illusion to think that we will use less data," she says. So let's build them as sustainably as possible. Preferably also in the Netherlands, where we can set requirements for sustainability, than in other countries where they run on power from coal-fired power plants." According to her, the Dutch infrastructure is very suitable for data centers and it is of economic and strategic importance to store data in their own country.

Elsinga also thinks this way. ,,You have to ask the question: what do we want with our digitalization in the coming years? Our data hunger is not getting any less. We all want to work from home, Netflix and fast internet. Do we as the Netherlands want to play a role in this data economy? Do we want to support startups that make use of data? Do you want companies like ASML to make maximum use of artificial intelligence (AI)? Do you want to be a leader with data on climate research? Now 1% of all data is used for AI, but by 2025 it will be more than 10%. We are only at the beginning of the revolution," he says.

Reducing data hunger

According to Dix, this data hunger is exaggerated. Social media are made to keep us glued to the screen and the big tech companies are mainly busy collecting and selling our data. So it's not just about online meetings. If we reduce this data hunger, we also need fewer data centers. That's an essential step in tackling the climate crisis," he argues.

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