When a world top 3 company says it’s paying to remove its entire historic CO2 footprint it gets your attention. Microsoft said exactly that a few days ago, and when Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace and Ecowatch all applaud the tech trillionaire for its move, you know we really must have a climate crisis.

In a global announcement introducing a moonshot program with a minimum 30 year time horizon it was great to see two companies from Sweden get an innovation namecheck – ABB and Vattenfall. The latter have worked on a 24/7 matching service between actual electricity kWh consumed and renewable certificates. Microsoft, like most other Internet giants, are investing in Swedish data centers, which in itself is a climate-positive move due to the abundance of clean local renewable electricity.  This is a move that mere mortal companies can emulate today, with equally valuable contributions to climate solutions.

Microsoft climate observers also commented on the delivery of cloud services to Big Oil being incongruous at best and disingenuous at worst. Notwithstanding, Microsoft got a huge step ahead in the race to do the right thing. Although carbon neutral since 2012, its no longer a viable position for them or the planet and they now state they will achieve net zero between now and 2030, and carbon negative from then on. The announced action plan will then take them 20 years to 2050 to pay down their accumulated carbon debts from their date of founding in 1975. Just planning, measuring and tracking all this is a Herculean task for which they must be applauded.

From Microsoft, taking on Scope 3 emissions is a massive statement of commitment to the climatechange cause. Scope 3 CO2 includes the supply and value chains use of your products. Eg the energy your customers use consuming your products and services. Like all cloud companies, Microsoft customers use energy to consume their products. Making tools available to allow customers to see the CO2 impact of their cloud usage is laudable transparency.

But Microsoft data centers also use energy to deliver those products, and that energy has a CO2 footprint – in total these Scope 2 emissions are perhaps 1/3rd the total of Scope 3.

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I got the chance last week to get an aerial view of one of the worlds largest data centers. Perhaps a glimpse into the future for Microsofts plans in Sweden. You can see in the photo the Facebook Lulea hyperscale facility in Northern Sweden.  Facebook, also one of the Worlds Top5 companies, is our neighbour – H66 are located just 30km away in Boden. In fact you can see two different Facebook data centers and a third under construction in the foreground. Together these will exceed 120 MW of power in use, enough for a substantial city.  In the background you can also see the Lule River  – home to 4500 MW of hydropower and responsible for producing 10% of Swedens electricity.

Although consuming a huge amount of energy, this data center campus is also one of the greenest in the world; tremendously energy-efficient and using clean green locally generated hydropower. In many ways a poster child data center that gives hope to an industry under significant pressure to clean up its act as it continues to expand its energy footprint.

Why did Facebook choose this location and not build in the UK? Site selecting a data center of this magnitude is a complex task with many possible choices. And you could in fact say Facebook have actively chosen this Nordic location three times now, so what’s so special about it?

One major variable is an abstract concept – electricity. It’s the single largest lifetime input to the financial and carbon cost base of a data center this size, and its vital to select a site that optimises each of five aspects. 

1 – Electricity should be generated locally and born green

Of course it can be washed green and transported long distances, but both these options add cost. Ideally you could acquire local renewable fossil-free electricity that is so green it doesn’t need a certificate to prove it, but that’s extremely rare.

2 – Electricity should be smooth and reliable.

It goes without saying, but true industrial strength grid reliability delivered without outages, spikes and at a stable frequency is highly unusual. Unreliable grids are the norm, hence the existence of diesel generator backup solutions for mission critical power such as hospitals and data centers.

3 – Use a combination of 2 or even more regional grids

Electricity is delivered to the end user from the power plant via High Voltage (HV) national transmission grids via Medium Voltage (MV) regional distribution grids. And then perhaps a local grid managed by a smaller supplier. Imagine a scenario where a large data center could use a combination of 2 or even more regional grids to supply a single building. Highly unusual, and so reliable the need for diesel generators is eliminated completely, or dramatically reduced.

4 – Electricity should be scalable

meaning you can develop further facilities in the same location over time and to demand, yet without negatively impacting someone else’s capability to use power. The availability of scalable power from Day 1 when you are making multi-decade capital investment decisions in an uncertain business environment is vital to resource optimisation. Exacerbated by the shift to renewables and growing demand, many places are power-constrained. Some cities eg Amsterdam, have announced moratoriums on new data center builds to try and curtail the problem at source.

5 – Electricity should be at the lowest possible cost and predictable over time.

EU locations such as London and Frankfurt are notoriously expensive, with green fees and taxes adding to an already high base cost. Mitigating these high costs by managing complex trading strategie adds risk exposure and overhead. 

Why Facebook, Microsoft (and many others) have chosen the Nordics

So for companies like Facebook to score a bullseye direct hit in all five electricity supply variables in Northern Sweden is a huge step in the right direction on the site selection journey. Of course other factors are also in play – jurisdiction, tax regime, local skills, telecoms infrastructure and dozens more. However it is almost impossible to ignore the global significance of such a location, and the tangible results of hundreds of millions of dollars of investment are seen in the photo.

Data center operators and investors in power constrained or dirty grids (or both) need to take a moment and reflect on whether they are part of the solution or part of the problem. As an industry we need to implement radically better data center solutions – they are available today for any forward-thinking company willing to go beyond business as usual.

So what does it mean for the IT leader under stress to reduce his corporate IT CO2 footprint? Cloud services are low hanging fruit – its a competitive on-demand low friction market – move services to a provider (such as H66) that offers transparent CO2 visibility, that has data centers located on a green grid and that will actively help you optimise your cloud services.

Paul Morrison

About Paul Morrison

Paul is a high-tech and IT business development executive with 20+ years commercial experience, currently working as CCO for Hydro66. Paul has worked in corporate and business development roles for Easynet, Sky and Fox Interactive Media. Paul co-founded Hydro66 in 2014.