The sound of power is a low and dull thrum. It can be heard emanating from every server rack in every data centre around the world, vibrations from fans beating ceaselessly to ensure that these humble repositories of digital information remain cool enough to continue supporting the online services we take for granted. The energy expenditure required to do this is enormous. According to a recent estimate by the International Energy Agency, data centres consumed up to 320 terawatt hours-worth of electricity last year – roughly equivalent to that of the UK.
It’s led some to question whether the construction of ever more data centres is sustainable, not least during a global climate emergency. As well as being criticised for excessive power consumption, much of which inevitably comes from fossil fuels, the companies running many of these data centres have also been singled out for their failure to contribute to the local communities in which these anonymous-looking facilities reside. As such, from Dublin to Zeewolde and Singapore, a movement is beginning to form calling for a moratorium on data centre construction – at least until new rules can be established to formalise their contributions to society beyond the provision of digital services.
It’s easy to understand why campaigners would be eager to rein in any unrestricted development that hungers for electrical power while contributing little to the local community. However, framing the construction of data centres in these terms, argues Ed Galvin, is misleading and trades on easy stereotypes about corporate power.
“I think the issue is that data centre operators tend to be big American conglomerates and tech giants, so they are instantly portrayed as the bogeyman,” says the chief executive of DC Byte, a data centre consulting firm. In truth, argues Galvin, these data centres are the buttresses supporting our increasingly digitised society: “This is infrastructure which is essential for leading our daily lives.”
Calls for a data centre moratorium
Even so, opposition against the construction of new data centres is gathering in multiple places. In February, for example, the Dutch government imposed a nine-month moratorium for new permits for hyperscale data centres, with exemptions in parts of Groningen and Noord-Holland. Local authorities in the latter, however, announced in June that they were seeking to overturn the exemption. “In recent years, many large-scale developments have taken place in the Wieringermeer in a short period of time, leaving insufficient space for participation and social debate about the effects on the living and living environment,” they said.
Singapore, too, has implemented its own moratorium. A city-state with a population of just under six million people crammed onto an island half the size of London, local authorities have grown concerned in recent years that data centre development has outpaced the country’s capacity to supply these facilities with clean electrical power. As such, the government recently announced consultations on a scheme that might “allow for the calibrated and sustainable growth of data centres” in the city-state. In a sign that climate-related concerns are now a priority, the country’s Infocomm and Media Development Authority has also released a statement calling for more sustainable practices, “particularly in the areas of energy efficiency and decarbonisation” for data centres.
Support for a moratorium on new developments is also growing in Ireland. Earlier this year, the country’s national grid operator announced that plans for at least 30 data centre projects would be halted in Dublin out of concerns that their energy consumption might lead to blackouts – though it later emerged that the sector had only used a quarter of its reserved grid allocation last year. Even so, controversy still rages about the national and local authorities’ receptiveness to new data centre developments, particularly from hyperscale cloud providers – an official enthusiasm that has led, says campaigner Dylan Murphy, to Ireland becoming Europe’s cloud computing capital.
“Effectively, what you have is Ireland bearing the burden of the data usage of an entire continent, which isn’t fair,” argues the member of the climate activist group Not Here, Not Anywhere (NHNA). While the group welcomes the Irish grid’s restrictions on new developments, NHNA wants the government to go further by bringing in new legislation that will not only rein in data centre energy usage, but also ensure all facilities are run on renewable power sources such as wind, solar and hydroelectricity.
Local community investment
In August, the Irish government’s restrictions on data centre construction led to Amazon and Microsoft scrapping plans to build new cloud facilities in Dublin. It’s this kind of corporate pull-out that the country’s ruling coalition has publicly sought to avoid. “We can't say no to all data centres,” said Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who ruled out an official data centre moratorium during a trade mission to Japan in July. “That, potentially, would be saying no to a lot of investment on the technology front.”
Murphy is unsympathetic to this line of argument. “There’s no guarantee that this is the case, because firstly, the direct employment in data centres is quite minimal depending on the size of it,” he says. “There’s no guarantee that even if they’re built here that the company will be here on a permanent basis. Businesses can still leave the country once business dynamics change.”
One such example can be found in Vaudreuil-Dorion, a small city in Québec, Canada, where in 2016, Ericsson launched a data centre costing $1.3bn after much fanfare and promises of new jobs. The data centre eventually shut down within the same year after the Swedish networking giant reported four consecutive quarters of losses. As the world’s biggest tech companies undergo dramatic falls in revenue, such cases remain a possibility.
Even if this were the case, argues Galvin, imposing restrictions on new data centre development would have more profound long-term consequences for a country’s ability to support digital services inside its borders. “If you're going to be developing legislation which is restricting people to only using capacity in-country whilst at the same time restricting the development of capacity, what you're essentially doing is strangling off potential growth,” Galvin says. As a result, “people just simply won't have the services and the infrastructure to support their business and personal goals”.
There are also signs that data centres worldwide are becoming more sustainable. AWS, for example, enthusiastically proclaims that its data centres are 3.6% more energy efficient than the median of enterprise data centres in the US, and that its parent company Amazon is committed to powering all of its operations using renewable energy sources by 2025. Google, says Galvin, has made similar commitments, making waves in 2019 when it began building solar farms above Taiwanese fish ponds to part-power a new hyperscale cloud facility in the country. The panels, he adds, are set to increase yields from the ponds, “because a little bit of shade from the sun is actually good for fish growth.”
Such commitments from hyperscale providers, though, have yet to change Irish minds about the merits of a future data centre moratorium, with a conducted by Ireland Thinks in June finding that 57% of respondents supported an ‘indefinite pause’ on new projects being connected to the grid. For activists like Murphy, that’s not likely to change until they see a more concerted effort to share the benefits of new data centres more directly with local communities. “If we're going to bear the brunt of most of the data centres,” he argues, “we need to have that investment within Ireland from these multinational companies.”