Every time you like a Facebook post, watch a YouTube video, stream a Netflix show or make a purchase on Amazon, you are expanding your carbon footprint. Every internet activity involves amounts of data that need to be stored somewhere. Anything that involves images, especially colour ones, generates major data traffic. And as it becomes ever easier to consume online, the more consumption rises. That wouldn’t be an issue if the data centres needed to manage the traffic didn’t consume so much energy.
Data centres have multiplied from almost nothing a decade ago to consuming about 3% of the global electricity supply and accounting for about 2% of total greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a similar carbon footprint as the airline industry. The quantity of energy consumed by these centres is doubling every four years despite hardware innovations that increase capacity to store data. As a result, data centres are forecast to consume roughly treble the amount of electricity in the next decade.
There’s an argument that we need to be more responsible about internet usage. Some have suggested that, in the absence of a revolutionary breakthrough in data storage, we’ll have to make significant cuts to our internet use at some point. This could involve a tax on data use – for example, a fee on uploading photographs to Facebook – or other measures such as switching from colour to black and white photographs. However, this is unlikely to happen any time soon, or ever.
One way to curb data centres’ carbon footprint is to increase the amount of renewable energy that they use. And we are seeing progress in this regard. Internet companies such as Facebook and Google are now leading efforts to be more environmentally responsible. The measures being taken include housing data centres in cold climates that dramatically reduce the energy needed to cool the facilities. Ideally, the locations will also have a good supply of renewable energy.
“Sweden is one country that fits the bill in terms of climate and renewable energy.”
Sweden is one country that fits the bill in terms of climate and renewable energy. This helped convince Facebook to open a major data centre in the far north of the country, in the mining town of Luleå, 70 miles from the Arctic Circle. The 84-acre site houses tens of thousands of computer servers set amid a green pine forest, lakes and an archipelago. Facebook says that this is among the most energy-efficient computing facilities ever built. Freezing air from outside is pumped into the building, acting as a natural coolant.
The location was also chosen for its electricity supply: Sweden’s northern region has a power surplus. A century ago, Sweden began building hydroelectric dams for its steel, iron ore and pulp and paper industries. These have declined, leaving a power surplus. Facebook’s data centre uses as much energy as the steel plant. The Luleå warehouse is the size of four football fields, with three protruding square diesel generators in the event the grid fails.
One of the facilitators of Facebook’s data centre in Luleå was Node Pole, Sweden’s commercial investment and development hub, providing support for investors within the cloud industry and other emerging energy-intensive industries. It is a one-stop shop for those looking towards Sweden. Node Pole says that Sweden’s advantages include industry energy prices that are among the lowest in the EU, a competitive corporate tax level, and a strong industrial heritage in a country with advanced and reliable infrastructure, excellent connectivity, and efficient export logistics solutions.
Swedish energy company Skellefteå Kraft recently announced that it is to build one of Sweden’s largest data centres in partnership with German NDC Datacenters. The park, located outside Skellefteå in northern Sweden, will have a capacity of up to 120 MW and will run solely on 100% renewable energy. The investment confirms the Nordics as a growing data centre cluster in Europe, with high electricity capacity, renewable energy, advanced and reliable infrastructure, excellent connectivity and efficient export logistics solutions. Skellefteå Kraft is a co-owner of Node Pole, which supports the data park investment.
Now, in an effort to ensure that the shift to renewable energy also involves environmentally friendly data handling, Node Pole is introducing a fossil-free data label to set a new transparent standard for how to cater for masses of data sustainably. This fossil-free data label will lead the way for a green transition for data handling. To obtain the label, companies must meet certain criteria including the following: 100% renewable energy; world-class energy usage efficiency (≤1.2 power usage efficiency); and less than 0.19 kg carbon emissions per kWh IT energy.
The Nordic data centre market in general is seeing plenty of investment. With thousands of hectares of land availability, large amounts of available renewable power, new data centres and the eco systems they attract, the region could become a global content hub. Furthermore, the potential development of the Northwest Passage cable across the Arctic could be a game changer for the region given that digital traffic between Europe and Asia is expected to triple over the next three to five years.