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Can the Nordics help crack the code for sustainable computing? It’s time for FLAPS!

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Data volumes have skyrocketed in recent years and the scale by which global digital infrastructures are expanding is unprecedented. But the real transformation is just getting started as we face the challenge of ramping up while at the same time making sure that sustainability goals are met. Does the rise of the data center industry automatically have to mean a high carbon footprint?

As the internet makes its way into connected cars, refrigerators, home appliances, wearable tech and industrial infrastructure, large-scale solutions for green data storage and processing are urgently needed. According to cloud visionary Mark Thiele whom I had the pleasure of meeting a few weeks ago, we could be facing an energy gap of 200,000 MW! In real estate terms, that’s an additional 4,000 “massive data centers” of 50 MW each - unless we do something disruptive.

Feeling a little short of breath? I am. Even if the numbers involve a large measure of guesswork (as most forecasts do), the challenge is monumental. If anything even close to this is about to happen, then it must be done with minimal impact on the environment. And I can’t help thinking that if Sweden could be the first country to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions, then surely the same could be achieved in the data center industry. Between 1990 and 2013, Sweden’s total CO2 emissions per capita decreased by 23 percent, while overall GDP per capita grew by about 58 percent. This positive trend has continued.

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With that in mind, I think it’s worth paying attention to the Nordic countries right now. Not just for the extraordinary growth of the data center market (14 percent year-on-year) and high-profile investments by tech giants such as AppleAmazon Web Services (AWS)Facebookand Google. There’s more. Take for example BMW’s partnership with Fortlax in Piteå, in Sweden’s north. Here, 100 percent renewable energy gives the car maker a foolproof way of expanding without adversely affecting the environment.

Pressure on cloud companies from organisations such as Greenpeace has moved on from well-known tech giants and is now aiming for responsible and sustainable co-location. Consumers and governments alike should demand that these companies operate with the lowest possible carbon footprint. To complement pure financial analysis with benchmarks for sustainability, I would argue that rather than just talk about the FLAP markets in Europe (Frankfurt London Amsterdam Paris), the time has come to extend the notion to FLAPS (above cities + Stockholm).

I believe we are entering the next critical phase of sustainability.

Heat recycling: the sleeping beauty of data centers

Sweden’s zero waste mentality is part of our industrial DNA. For data centers, that means finding societal synergies on a systemic level, not only for individual projects.

Heat recycling is the next big thing and will be crucial for the sustainability of the data center industry. We don’t believe low energy prices and a 97 percent carbon-neutral energy mix is enough. That’s why we are seeing the market for waste heat recycling picking up momentum.

When we approached the tech giants in 2009 with messages about heat reuse alternatives and a track record from 1978, we were met with polite nods. Since then, the city of Stockholm has developed an hour-by-hour market for waste heat, complete with an online trading platform, technical solutions and ready-to-sign contracts – all of which was discussed in detail in London last week. Fashion retailer H&M captures waste heat from data processing and feeds it back into the district heating network, as does telecom giant Ericsson.

"Sweden pioneered heat recycling from data centers in 1978"

More than 30 companies are already actively buying and selling heat on Stockholm’s platform Stockholm Data Parks, and several other cities are ready to receive large-scale heat producing data centers.

Another good example can be found in the town of Boden close to the Arctic circle where the EU has awarded €3 million to research in data center design with minimum environmental impact.

Sweden pioneered heat recycling from data centers in 1978 and there are also projects in the pipeline in Finland and Denmark, including Facebook’s data center in Odense where heat will be recycled to warm 6,900 homes. The circular economy is gaining traction.

The road ahead: 3 green steps for managing the data boom

I believe there are three basic steps towards a more responsible global data center infrastructure:

  1. Focus initial efforts on getting a reliable long-term mix of zero carbon power in a stable location. Sweden is a good example with 97 percent carbon-free electricity generation, but there are of course other options.
  2. Secure 100% renewable electricity by locking in eg PPA’s for wind power like many large corporations have done, such as IKEA, Google and others. Sweden offers more wind power than any other Nordic country with 6,700 MW operational, and a pipeline of projects of more than 23,600 MW!
  3. Don’t waste your heat! Explore synergies in the community, minimise your carbon footprint and get paid for the heat you recycle via the local district heating network.

Let’s think about bringing sustainability measures into our industry, before consumers, clients and regulators beat us to it.

Sweden’s response has always been to develop systemic solutions that care for society and the environment. Is this the way forward - can the Nordic way of thinking indeed help crack the code for sustainable computing? What is your experience, what are we lacking, what else needs to be done?

This article was orignally published on Linkedin on 15 November 2017 by Tomas Sokolnicki Data Centers by Sweden.

 

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Tomas Sokolnicki

Senior Investment Advisor, Data Centers by Sweden Stockholm, Sweden Senior Investment Advisor, Data Centers by Sweden, Stockholm, Sweden
+46 70 642 78 31
E-mail tomas.sokolnicki@business-sweden.se