03 Jan 2018
The IT sector consumes 7% of global electricity already, and
the number is climbing. That’s one reason that the
calculation behind where companies decide to put their new data
centres, or where they decide to colocate, has introduced an
extra factor: where’s the power?
Cheap power has historically been made from fossil fuels. IT
has been one reason that Virginia has been a destination in the
US, because electricity is cheap and plentiful there.
But that might be changing for some companies. Not because
the availability of power has changed, but because where it
Virginia’s power is cheap, for example, because
94% of it comes from coal supplied by local mines.
The low prices of oil and gas in recent years have also
delayed the transition to renewables from generating companies.
Recognising that utilities and governments will need a push to
focus more on renewable sources of power, Greenpeace is
campaigning to convince the people who decide where to put data
centres to demand 100% renewable power sources.
It’s a serious campaign, conducted mostly away
from the public view, and it has been successful.
The first movers have been the internet giants such as
Facebook, Apple, and Google which made 100% renewable
commitments five years ago. They were followed by 20 internet
companies – for example, AWS in 2014, and Equinix in
2015, including several global cloud and colocation
The campaigner is keeping up the pressure, focusing now on
regions, not just the US giants. When large companies make
commitments, they can expect lobbying from Greenpeace wherever
they are in the world.
Greenpeace is also emphasising that data, with regulatory
and connectivity constraints, clearly, is mobile, so the owners
of data should be putting it close to renewable power
This is one of the reasons that the frozen north is
attracting ever larger chunks of the global data centre
business. Nordic countries’ governments have
recently cottoned on to the potential, creating tax breaks for
data centre operators.
But they have long been sitting on huge upside. Connectivity
to Europe is good. Political and geological problems are small.
There is no shortage of qualified technical staff. But the
campaign to invest only in renewable-powered infrastructure is
also pushing companies to invest in the Nordic countries.
For example, Facebook’s new Luleå data
centre in Sweden, its prized first investment outside the US,
covers 27,000 square metres, and is entirely powered by
hydroelectricity. It circulates air from windows in the
facility’s upper level to make cooling more
This is normal in the Nordics: Byrne Murphy, the chairman of
colo data centre builder Digiplex, points out that in the
facilities his company operates, circulating clean fresh air
saves 20% of the power bill. There’s no premium
for demanding renewable power sources, because almost all power
in most Nordic regions is renewable anyway. Norway, for
example, uses 98% hydro, and data centres commonly use their
Nordic data centre operators are gambling that large US
companies that want to locate data outside North America are
going to be swayed by a sustainability commitment to choose
them. As Greenpeace points out, 60% of the Fortune 100 and 43%
of the Fortune 500 in the US have a greenhouse gas reduction
goal, a renewable energy target, or both. Customer pressure so
far hasn’t forced many providers to act more
sustainably, it admits, not least because some are reluctant to
report their true performance on power.
But there is evidence this is beginning to happen. Akamai
reports and aggregates its energy performance data. If
prospective or current customers ask for it as part of their
climate commitment, it will make it available.
As the amount of data travelling on the internet triples by
2025, and the regulatory incentives for sustainability
increase, then the architecture of the building in which that
data resides is bound to come into focus.
When it does, the fjords, bracing clean air and geothermal
springs in Nordic regions aren’t just good for
tourism. It may mean that much of Europe’s data
migrates north too.