With data center energy consumption rapidly heading for 4% of global electricity usage according to the Uptime Institute, it’s more pressing than ever to understand the carbon impact of online services. The Climate Question is a very interesting global programme reflecting a variety of views on climate change and how best to understand it. For example, we see big tech firms reporting record profits during lockdown as the new industrial titans of the digital age. Previous industrial revolutions have placed a huge burden on our planet. Will this digitial revolution have the same effects? Will the big tech companies address this with better transparency on how using their services affect the planet?
As part of this BBC World Service radio program Mats Lewan visited Facebook and Hydro66 in Northern Sweden to report on how the cleanest data centers in the world are setting the pace to address the problems caused by an ever-growing Internet.
This episode where Hydro66 hosted Mats Lewan was seeking answers to what effect the vast amount of data created has on the planet and the climate. Cold air, clean energy at low cost make this data paradise with close to #netzero effect on the environment.
The Climate Question was looking for answers; have a listen to find out what they have discovered. (27 minutes)
Experts and reporters on the program:
Here are some of the questions Mats posed for us inside the data center at Hydro66.
What exactly is a data center?
Just as you make office buildings specialized for people, a data center is a specialized building for computer equipment. Particularly with regard to cooling as the computers get very hot. Electrical power needs to be always on even if there are utility grid problems and the Internet has to always work.
Basically for a data center, building services failure is not an option.
What can we see in the data center and what is it we can hear?
The server rooms are quite large – this one is 500 square meters, compared to the average European home at 100 square meters, so the size of 5 homes. And we have another 5 rooms just like this one! As we said we need to keep the computer equipment cool so the background noise you can hear is industrial scale cooling equipment to move fresh air into the building. If we turned the building fans off it would be almost silent! And of course it could be completely dark in here, but we have motion activated lighting so that staff can maintain the building and computers from time to time.
Who uses these servers?
This particular data center was built to be used by many different customers. It’s a similar model to a shopping mall, with many retail shops sharing the same building. Our customers range from local government to international private companies. The common factor is that we can provide a highly technical building at a better price than if they had to build it themselves.
Why does a data center use so much power?
Servers use a lot of power to compute and over time we have figured out the most efficient way to stack many servers in a relatively small space. So the computers use a lot of energy, and then depending on how efficient your building design we also need some power to keep them cool. So going back to the average home size comparison, we are using perhaps 250 homes worth of power in this 1 room.
Why is cooling needed?
Basically the computers generate heat as a by-product of the work they do, and that heat needs to be removed, otherwise the room gets too hot and the computers switch off. This heat removal process is extremely important to be efficient and it should be done in the most environmentally friendly way possible.
Why do you want to place a data center in northern Sweden?
It’s really perfect conditions for computer equipment here. The outside air is cool and clean, there is a massive amount of 100% green renewable energy on the doorstep and there is a huge amount of Internet connections. Add in the skilled local workforce and the respect for the environment and you can’t ask for a better location. We like to call it data paradise.
What sets you apart from other server halls?
We set out with a mission to create the greenest data center in the world. Full stop. We believe we have achieved that and won some great awards along the way. Key things have been our cutting edge cooling design, our elimination of fossil fuels in our power supply and the use of local materials and workforce. This data center is fully embedded in the local community and recently a new term has arisen for what has always been in our DNA. What we have achieved is now known as #netzero and we are very proud of that.
Can you not use the heat, for heating for example? Or to an adventure pool?
We do use the heat as part of our cooling design. Sometimes the air outside is simply too cold to bring in, so we use some heat to normalize that. That helps us with overall efficiency. In this particular part of the world there is a very well established district heating system so there is actually no technical or economic case for our heat to be used by the community. Again, everything we do is driven by efficiency and the environment.
Is there sufficient fossil-free energy, or will there be a tug-of-war with other industrial users?
Currently the river system we are directly connected to supplies about 10% of Sweden’s total electricity. This one river is capable of much more production – and in fact about 50% of the current production is being exported to the south and even internationally. So although there will be new local sources of demand such as fossil free steel and carbon fibre production, lithium battery factories etc, there is also new supply in the form of onshore wind – the largest farm in Europe is currently being built just down the road. Data centers are long time scale assets and we see no problem with getting enough energy locally for the foreseeable future.
What will a data center look like in ten years?
If I was being clever, I would say it will look like the one we are standing in now! All joking apart, data centers are a bit behind in general – most of them are built in city centres and using dirty power. It’s not sustainable at all. We are the future where massive scale data “factories” can be built on clean energy infrastructure beside the power source and not relying on long high voltage transmission lines. It means city centre power can be better used for other purposes such as electrification of mass transit for people. We are just at the start of this journey – watch this space.