The author is International Policy Director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center
Asked about plans to develop a “hyperscale” data center on one of the rare parts of free land in the Netherlands, Facebook replied: “We do not respond to rumors.”
Meanwhile, the company has engaged high-end engineering and law firms to advance its interests and help build the largest data center in Europe.
Former Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Eric Wiebes has been persuaded to sign off on exceptional access to the local high-voltage network. New schools often wait years for similar approvals.
Information about this contract only became public after freedom of information requests by journalists. The final decision to sell 166 hectares of agricultural land to Facebook was then approved last week by the municipal council of Zeewolde.
Egge Jan de Jonge, a local alderman, conceded that the town would “play in the Champions League from scratch”. The question now is whether small towns like Zeewolde, which has a population of just 23,000, are any match for the big Silicon Valley companies.
In another small Dutch town, Wieringermeer, the construction of 82 windmills was initially proposed as a sustainable energy solution that would supply 370,000 households with electricity. Yet Microsoft eventually bought most of the output. The company recently admitted it should not have been so secretive about its plans to build a hyperscale center there.
In the US, it is also known that Google uses tracking companies, which leads to less public scrutiny. Google and Microsoft data centers in Wieringermeer alone are expected to consume 525 cubic meters of drinking water per hour, a total of 4.6 million cubic meters per year.
As European leaders seek to curb the power of Big Tech, national and local governments are rolling out the red carpet. Tax concessions, and access to subsidized energy contracts and agricultural land, facilitate the construction of hyper-scale data centers across Europe through Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. Significant effects on the use of energy, water and land are expected for decades.
Already, data storage and transmission, as well as crypto mining, swallows up about 2.5 percent of global electricity consumption. A study in Denmark, home to several major data centers, predicts that by 2030, 15 percent of the country’s energy consumption will be needed to power it.
Technical companies are now buying up renewable energy to reduce their carbon footprint. In 2018, for example, Facebook was the largest corporate renewable energy buyer in the world.
But gradually political setbacks are growing. Ireland has been welcoming technology companies for some time, but is changing course now that EirGrid expects data centers to use almost 30 per cent of Ireland’s electricity by 2028. The 30 new data centers planned in the country will have to commit to working with authorities to avoid energy disruptions of the kind that plague China due to excessive industrial use.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Green Party in Germany’s Frankfurt region have called for a decision on the feasibility of energy promises around a proposed data center.
In practice, the usefulness of residual heat from data centers is often questionable. And while job creation in local communities is often promised as a beneficial consequence of such projects, it is not always achieved.
As the demand for cloud computing, AI, streaming services, and crypto mining grows, so does the need for data centers. Yet a healthy democratic debate on the costs and benefits of housing these facilities is impossible without company transparency about the process.
Instead of leaving the decision to the lowest levels of government, or allowing companies to pit European, national and local politicians against each other, a more integrated vision is needed.
And keeping track of the sum of a series of decisions made at the local level is key. North Holland, a province of 4,000 sq km, is currently home to 57 data centers. Maybe every carefully calibrated planning application sounded fascinating, but do the demands for water, electricity and land really beat?
So far, the so-called techlash has saved data centers, but that may soon change unless companies and governments change their behavior.