You are reading an article on a website right now. Chances are you do this quite often. Maybe you’ve written an article yourself recently. When it is published online, like this one, it creates data. But this data doesn’t just float around – it has to be stored somewhere. That’s where data centers come in. 

Data centers are buildings filled with computer systems and servers which consume monstrous amounts of energy and electricity – a reality often ignored by politicians and policy makers when discussing green energy plans.

Data on data

There is, ironically, little data available on data centers. It is unknown, for example, how many data centers currently exist in the world. Due to its transparent policy on the matter, it is known that Google, the most visited website worldwide and one of the largest data collectors, has 21 centers spread over North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.  

We also know that the importance of data centers is rising. With a large part of everyday human life taking place online, people are dependent on these centers to store and back up their crucial work documents, vacation photos, and the latest Netflix series they’re watching. The Covid-19 pandemic has only reinforced our reliance on the internet and technology, meaning the amount of data stored will probably continue to increase.

All this data storage requires energy, which consequently leads to emissions. Right now, the ICT sector as whole (including data centers, telecom networks, and user devices) accounts for about 1.8-2.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a figure which is only growing and is roughly the same as the aviation sector.

Big tech’s bid for green energy

The big tech companies are not unaware of this fact. On the contrary: they have become the world’s biggest corporate purchasers of clean energy. They need large amounts of power for their data centers to keep the servers cool. If not, the software will overheat and everything stored on it will be lost. 

According to the Financial Times, the combined power usage of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft is more than 45 terawatt-hours per year, which is about the same as New Zealand uses. This amount will only grow as the increased use of data and the rise of AI demand more computing power. Consequently, the demand for green energy will grow too. But where do big tech companies get it from? 

Gulping up green energy from others: Evidence from the Netherlands

A year ago, a brand-new wind park was opened in the small Dutch municipality of Wieringermeer. This park would be able to produce enough green energy to power 370,000 households. Unfortunately, not a single household is profiting from this park. Instead, all of the green energy has been bought by Microsoft, which houses several big data centers in the area. 

A segment produced by Zondag met Lubach, a satirical yet informative Dutch TV show, found that the wind park, although built by a Swedish company, was paid using Dutch subsidies and without much consultation or consent from the local community. 

While these data centres, powered by locally sourced energy, had the potential to be beneficial for all residents, these specific two centers were unfortunately built for data coming from Africa and the Middle East, providing no use to the locals.  

The loss of space and energy isn’t the only problem these communities are facing. Even when using clean energy, the data centers can be wasteful because they require a lot of water to cool down their hard drives. A Google data center in Arizona, for example, requires about 1-4 million gallons a day depending on the data traffic. That said, most data centers either don’t know, or understate, how much water they’re using. If the number of data centers increases, their increased water usage has the potential to deprive local communities of drinking water, as reported on by NOS, the Dutch broadcasting services.  

Slow solutions

All of the above could cause some serious problems if not addressed promptly and properly. As part of their climate goals, the European Commission (EC) therefore aims to achieve “climate neutral, highly energy-efficient and sustainable data centers by no later than 2030.” A recent EC study confirmed that the energy use of data centers based in EU member states is going to increase so, as a first and only solution, they call for data centers and big tech companies to increase their transparency. Although promising, this is only a recommendation so a direct result is not even guaranteed.  

The EC also stated that “due to the nature of cloud computing and the diversity of cloud service providers, there is no single solution to reach the 2030 target.” Although seemingly making matters more complicated, this offers the potential for all stakeholders — affected communities that are hosting the centers above all —  to come together to draw up solutions. 

It’s time to discuss the undiscussed data problem.