Apple, Facebook, and Google Won’t Destroy Denmark’s Environmental Achievements

C. Drake

Summary Bullets:

  • New data centers operated by Apple, Facebook, and Google will contribute to rising energy consumption in Denmark over the next decade, coinciding with a growing shortfall of renewable energy.
  • Despite concerns about their environmental impact, hyperscale Internet firms are supporting various energy efficiency initiatives, including energy recycling and new data center design and deployment methods.

A recent Danish government memorandum raised new concerns about the long-term environmental impact of data centers operated by large Internet companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google. However, while such concerns should be taken seriously, they need to be understood within the context of wider initiatives by hyperscale Internet firms to improve data center energy efficiency.

Denmark is a global pioneer in renewable energy, with wind energy alone contributing to 43% of total final consumption in 2017. Despite this, the government anticipates a growing shortfall of renewable energy from 2020 and a consequent need to increase production at coal-fired power plants. As a result, CO2 emissions are predicted to rise by as much as 10% by 2030.

Much of this concern is based on the anticipated arrival of new data centers in Denmark operated by Apple, Facebook, and Google. Last July, Apple announced plans to invest $921 million in a new Danish data center – its second in the country – which will run entirely on renewable power. Earlier in the year, Facebook unveiled plans to build a data center in the southern Danish city of Odense, while it was revealed in November that Google had bought land in Denmark with the option of building a data center.

Despite this interest in Denmark as a location for building large data centers, the long-term environmental impact need not be as great as government and other observers fear.

Firstly, the Danish Energy Authority suggests that renewable energy, as a proportion of total consumption, will fall from 72% in 2017 to 62% in 2030. However, although data centers will contribute to rising energy consumption, the ratio of renewable to non-renewable energy will be influenced by large numbers of wind turbines reaching the end of their operational life and not being replaced. However, the Energy Authority stresses the great uncertainty that’s attached to renewable energy shares, especially over the long term. For example, it identifies various factors that could influence stronger or weaker growth in alternative energy sources, including biomass.

Secondly, although large Internet firms are major energy consumers, they are also involved in energy recycling initiatives which help to offset their consumption. Facebook announced in September that it will use the 100,000 MWh of waste energy generated annually by its new Danish data center to heat up to 6,900 homes in Odense. There is potential for such initiatives to be replicated elsewhere.

Thirdly, large data center operators face pressure to operate energy-efficient data centers while keeping carbon emissions down. This has steered them to invest in places with plentiful renewable energy, including Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands. If those renewable energy sources start to look uncertain, these companies would be expected to shift all or part of their operations elsewhere. Norway has recently stepped up efforts to lure large-scale data center operators to the country, working on new tax incentives and promoting credentials that include a plentiful supply of renewable energy. It is also worth noting that Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Germany are electrically connected, creating the potential for energy exchange between these countries. This can also potentially benefit data center companies investing in the region.

Finally, hyperscale Internet firms are investing in more energy-efficient data center design and deployment methods. In June, Microsoft deployed a preassembled, preconfigured data center on the seabed off the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. The data center runs entirely on renewable energy and uses a heat exchange process commonly used to cool submarines. The new data center will be monitored over the next twelve months for a host of operational and environmental factors. If successful, seabed deployment could become a key element of Microsoft’s future data center expansion plans.

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