European countries are reviewing where each megawatt of their electricity grid goes in anticipation of a winter complicated by the Russian gas crisis. The high consumption of data centers, the skeletons that support the digital society, has changed the political priorities of some countries and what were previously perceived as priority and strategic facilities, have become potential problems in the making.
“If we don’t act on data centers, we are losing part of the potential to get out of gas and help the energy transition,” said Claude Turmes, Minister of Energy and Spatial Planning of Luxembourg, after a recent meeting of the European Council. His country had given the go-ahead for the installation of several of these infrastructures, but now the Green Party politician does not see it so clearly.
Data centers are gigantic facilities that process the information that each device connected to the Internet consults. Broadly speaking, they are industrial warehouses full of servers and the necessary machinery to keep them at an optimal operating temperature. There the Netflix series are stored, the algorithms that carry out Google searches and all the services that are carried out from Cloud.
According to a report by the consulting firm Synergy, the cloud infrastructure business reached 155,000 million euros in 2021, 37% more than the previous year. But it carries a cost. Like any computer, servers tend to get hot with prolonged use, so keeping them on and cool 24 hours a day turns data centers into huge energy consumers.
In recent years, the EU has focused on the need to increase the efficiency of these facilities and regulate them so that they move towards a horizon in which 100% of the energy they consume is clean. However, they are still large consumers connected to an electricity grid that this winter may be very stressed due to possible electricity restrictions caused by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, in addition to the fact that the trend is for their consumption to continue growing.
Central and northern European countries have expressed the most concerns about data centers and are the most exposed to possible Russian gas supply cuts. The statements by the Luxembourg minister on these infrastructures came after signing a pact with Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark to promote stricter efficiency measures for them. Some have returned to the study phase data centers that had already been approved.
The objective of these countries is that the rest of the European partners join them in the restrictions when it comes to connecting the data centers of the technological multinationals to the electrical network of the continent. According to data from the European Commission, data centers consume about 3% of Europe’s electrical power and by 2030 they could reach close to 100 TWh, more than many European countries.
This consumption, however, is not distributed equally among all territories. Data centers tend to cluster in clusters to take advantage of economies of scale. This usually causes a flourishing of technology companies around it due to the concentration of professionals, but it also multiplies electricity consumption.
Ireland is the best example of this. The Dublin environment is the place that most American technology multinationals have chosen for their European headquarters due to the tax advantages it offers them. There they have also established large data centers that already consume 14% of the country’s electricity. This is, for example, more than all the electricity used by the rural population of a country that exceeds the European average of residents outside urban areas by 9 points (36% of its inhabitants live in rural areas, compared to 27% in the EU). .
The high energy demand of these facilities has caused Dublin to block the installation of new data centers near the city in the 2022-2026 period so as not to further stress the electricity network that supplies the population. A decision that has surprised the Irish National Executive, which is analyzing how to reverse it. It has also been appealed to the courts by one of the companies that manages the data centers in the city, which aspires to build more in the coming years, according to the Irish Times.
The Russian gas crisis comes amid a shake-up of network infrastructures to build data centers closer to end users. The consolidation of digitization forced by the pandemic and the new technological services, in which streaming content and cloud computing have gained much more weight, require faster connections and lower latencies.
Spain is one of the countries that aspires to become a regional hub for this new generation of infrastructures. Companies such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Meta (parent of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) or IBM have announced the construction of large data centers in the country, which is in an attractive strategic position to concentrate new traffic routes. On the one hand, it has a simple connection with Lisbon, where important submarine cables linking Europe with Latin America have been anchored. On the other, it is the simplest portal between the continent and Africa, where technology companies want to increase their presence in the coming years.
Despite this and unlike some of its European partners, the consumption of the digital industry is not a source of concern for the Spanish Government. “The great projects of data centers in Spain they are still in the development phase and will not be operational this winter. Similarly, many of them still do not have access to the electricity grid and are waiting for the electricity planning to be modified in order to obtain it,” the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge explained to elDiario.es.
The same sources remind us that the construction or expansion of data centers must be preceded by detailed studies on the energy that they are going to consume, how much is available for that plot and the evolution of the forecast demand for their environment in the coming years. One of the main claims of companies specializing in building and managing this type of facility is precisely to streamline these processes, which can take years, as well as to have easier access to energy.
“The new data center projects in Spain are planned with the aim of being neutral in emissions, or even positive in energy generation,” explains the Spanish data center employers, SpainDC. “The data center industry in Spain can offer the most sustainable model of all the countries in our environment,” they express to this medium.
The absence of energy problems on the peninsula may even become a competitive advantage for this sector, according to this association. “Spain is not yet at the level of the main digitization centers in Europe, known as FLAP (Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam and Paris). The growth forecast in the generation of renewable energy in Spain and the energy problems of other countries in our environment are favoring the development of the industry in our country”, he summarizes.