Moving data to the fjords

The IT sector consumes 7% of global electricity already, and the number is climbing.

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 comes from. 

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 companies. 

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 sources.

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 efficient.

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 own generators.

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. 

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