- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jul 23
The environmental damage is just the start of their negative impact. A chilling report by Gerry McGovern.
1. They use incredible amounts of electricity
Irish households have reduced their demand for electricity by 9% over the past couple of years. In contrast, electricity demand from data centres has soared by 31%. A truly astonishing 18% of Ireland’s electricity now goes to feed over 80 already active data centres. 14 more are already under construction and an additional 40 have received planning permission. A further 12 are awaiting such permission.
There are about 1.9 million households in Ireland, so an average data centre consumes as much electricity as 23,000 homes. According to The Irish Times, these data centres consumed “400% more electricity in the final quarter of 2022 compared with the same period in 2015.” It’s going to get worse. According to Dr Patrick Bresnihan of National University of Ireland, Maynooth, if the government follows through with its plans, data centres will be consuming 70% of total Irish electricity by 2030.
And if we don’t have enough electricity, what’s the solution? Diesel generators and linking to the gas grid! Yes, during a global environmental crisis, Ireland plans to allow data centres to have diesel generators, with an increasing number hooking up to the gas grid, massively increasing our greenhouse gas emissions during a critical period when we desperately need to be reducing them.
Data centres are stressing electricity systems everywhere they go. Even in Iceland, the land of cheap, abundant electricity, there were electricity shortages in 2021, partly caused by data centres and bitcoin mining. In West London, they haven’t been able to build new homes because data centres there have gobbled up all the electricity supply.
In their planning applications, data centres love nothing more than to gush on about renewable energy and how they’re so committed to the highest levels of environmental consciousness (while at the same time ordering diesel generators and lots of gas). Let’s get something straight here. “Renewable” energy is only half-renewable. The materials required to build solar panels and wind turbines are massive and most definitely not renewable. Serious environmental damage is done in the most sensitive ecosystems to get the lithium, copper, aluminium, etc., needed; and huge quantities of toxic waste are left in dumps after the mining companies leave. So, just going electric is not going to solve the multiple environmental crises we face. We must reduce energy consumption by at least 40%.
Let’s suspend this cold reality for a moment, and say that when all this wonderful half-renewable energy comes online in Ireland, we give it all to data centres instead of ordinary households and local businesses. Is that the right thing to do?
“For a lot of individuals and politicians, the fact that we use energy from newly constructed wind parks for the benefit of hyper-scale data centers feels out of balance,” says Dutch technology analyst, Julia Krauwer. As Gauthier Roussilhe, a French researcher who specialises in the environmental footprint of digitalisation, puts it: “You can have all the data centres in Ireland absorbing all the renewable energy capacity that is being put on the grid. So, data centres might have very nice environmental reports, lowering the carbon intensity of their electricity mix but not allowing other actors to get this renewable energy, so it becomes a zero-sum game.” Another word for it is: madness.
2. They create massive amounts of e-waste
How many people know that the pollution and damage caused by the materials used in data centres is enormous? To give you a picture, the ‘Cloud’ is on the ground, and all that data is stored in 70-80 million computer servers. In the manufacture of each server, between one and two tons of CO2 will have been created, as well as multiple tons of toxic mining waste, and hundreds of thousands of litres of polluted water. In reality, ‘digital’ is an incredibly physical and toxic industry, that has done a wonderful con-job of presenting itself as green.
Equipment is disposed of much faster than in other industries. “You have this robust equipment like generators that in a regular commercial environment would run for 35-40 years,” Dan Swinhoe writes for Data Center Dynamics. “But in a data centre because of reliability and redundancy requirements, they don’t want to take a chance, so they’ll replace the generators in 20 to 25 years.”
E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. In a typical dump, e-waste can cause 70%-80% of the toxicity damage. The greatest amount of e-waste from data centres comes from the servers. About 20 million servers are replaced every year. For ‘security’ reasons, 90% of hard drives on these servers are physically destroyed, when they are removed, even though they could be securely wiped. Again: madness.
3. They consume unbelievable amounts of water
In the US, data centres are in the top 10 of industrial water users. About ten years ago, a data centre engineer said that water consumption in data centres “is super embarrassing. It just doesn’t feel responsible.” It’s gotten worse. In a 2021 survey, 63% of data centres believed, conveniently, that “there is no business justification for collecting water usage data.” A study of 122 data centre companies found that only 16% disclose plans for managing water-related risks.
Data centres tend to target places where water is “super cheap”, and where local laws are less than stringent. The primary purpose of water in a data centre is to cool the hot servers. Meta – Mark Zuckerberg, that is – consumed about 2.6 million cubic metres of water during 2021, a 17% increase over 2020. A Microsoft data centre in Holland, which promised it would use between 12 and 20 million litres a year, was found to be using 84 million litres. The drought-stricken Dutch were not impressed.
How much water should data centres be using? The Climate Neutral Datacenter Pact has proposed a limit of 0.4 litres of water per kilowatt-hour. Instead, according to a US Government report, data centres demand 1.8 litres of water for every kWh.
• In Bluffdale, Utah, residents suffer from water shortages and power outages, as a result of the nearby Utah Data Center.
• Mesa, Arizona, approved a data centre that will require up to 1.25 million gallons of water every day. Because of historical droughts, the local area has had water “red alerts” for years. Arizona is a desert that has gotten wealthy off a giant freshwater aquifer, and from drawing water from the Colorado river. Only now, the river is running dry and the aquifer is shrinking. In response, there are plans in Arizona to import desalinated water from hundreds of miles away in… Mexico.
• Get this: humans have pumped so much groundwater in the last 50 years, we’ve altered the Earth’s spin.
4. They are very noisy
There is constant noise from data centres, 24-7-365. This has been known to cause higher blood pressure, hypertension and anxiety in people living close by. Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, of MIT, has written about this.
“Brenda Hayward takes a stroll through her sunny neighborhood, past the lovely, green lawn of Chuparosa park in Chandler, Arizona, when she hears it – the noise that haunts her every night as she attempts to sleep. It is there every morning when she wakes up. It is there in the park where her children played when they were young, riffling through the boughs of the palo verde trees, stalking her as she tries to live her life quietly. It began as a dull boom, not unlike the racket of bass-frenzied teenagers partying late into the night. Later, it evolved into a continuous, mechanical whine. She tries not to notice it, she tries to unhear it, but it is there, behind everything, a hellish background track to her life…”
5. They create very few jobs
In Ireland, 80 or so data centres employ about 25,000 people. No, not 250,000. 25,000 jobs, out of a total Irish workforce of 2.5 million. So, they consume 18% of Irish electricity while employing 1% of the workforce. This is UBER GUBU. For every percent of electricity data centres use, they create less than 1,500 jobs. In the rest of the Irish economy, for every percent of electricity used, industry creates over 30,000 jobs. From an employment perspective, data centres simply don't make sense. Nor will they.
When data centres were being promoted for Västnyland in Northern Sweden, 30,000 new jobs were promised. 56 people now work in the server halls. Worse still, the data centres have sucked up so much electricity in Västnyland, that there isn’t enough for other enterprises that would create vastly more jobs.
“It’s becoming more and more automated,” Gauthier Roussilhe told me. “A city north of Paris calculated that the employment rate for a data centre in the area was one full-time employee per 10,000 square metres, when the average in the area was 50.”
“Employment in data centres are high value jobs,” the surreal Irish government policy paper on data centres states. On the contrary, data centre work is basic, repetitive technical stuff that involves shift work and being constantly on call. If there’s a major issue, the experts get flown in. And for the local community? There’s a few jobs in cleaning and security, if they’re lucky.
“But we need data centres to attract other high tech industries,” they tell us. Not really. The foundational concept of modern computing is that you don’t need to be beside your data. When the monster data centre sets up in Ennis, do you think it’ll be storing the data of Clare people? Or that technology companies will decide to locate in Clare to be close to the data centre?
6. They are horrible for local communities
If you live close to a data centre, it’ll drain and pollute your water, guzzle your energy, pump toxins into your air, make a lot of noise, bring little or no local jobs, and will be gone in 15-20 years leaving a big, ugly shell behind.
There are about 200 data centres in The Netherlands and Dutch society – and farmers in particular – are getting more and more organised in their opposition to them.
“Groups opposing the construction of polluting and water-intensive data centres are emerging in different regions,” Sebastián Lehuedé wrote for the London School of Economics in 2022. “These local activists are laying bare Big Tech’s profoundly problematic community and environmental record.”
In 2022, there were moves to ban large hyperscale data centres in Holland.
Numerous protests have similarly been organised in Ireland. Across the USA, community groups are getting organised. In drought-stricken Chile they’re asking, “With Google as my neighbour will there still be water?”
There is a mega data centre planned for Ennis, County Clare. And mega data centres are MEGA. The CITADEL, in Nevada, USA, is the size of 175 large supermarkets. According to a submission from environmental protection group Futureproof Clare, the data centre planned for their area will have:
- an electricity load of 200MW, the equivalent consumption of all the homes in Clare, Limerick and Kerry combined
- huge gas turbines generating 120MW of electricity – effectively a large fossil fuel-burning power station within the data centre
- the consumption of up to 1,000,000 litres of treated water per day in hot weather, in a county facing water shortages.
“It beggars belief,” Declan Owens of Ecojustice Ireland said, “that the Irish State could allow new fossil fuel infrastructure to be built to power the Ennis Data Centre in the midst of a climate emergency.”
7. They are super-secretive
How much water do US data centres use?
“We don’t really know,” Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory research scientist Dr. Arman Shehabi explains.
There is no transparency. In the US, Google considers its water usage a “trade secret.” The company bars even local officials from disclosing data usage figures.
When Dutch councillor Lars Ruiter stopped his car to show a Wired magazine reporter a half-finished Microsoft data centre, he was quickly challenged by a security guard who within moments had his hands around the councillor’s neck. Ruiter told the reporter later that the incident perfectly illustrated the “fog of secrecy that surrounds the Netherlands’ expanding data centre business.” I asked the ESB to inform me at what rates data centres were paying for electricity. “We cannot comment,” I was told, “as the information is commercially sensitive.” Chances are they’re paying a lot less than you or me.
“Data centres refuse to be transparent,” Philip Boucher-Hayes of RTÉ wrote in 2022. “I spent months trying to get interviews with some of the hyperscale operators here. They refused.”
I asked Gauthier Roussilhe why he thinks data centres are so super-secretive? “Data centres,” he offered, “are facing more and more opposition worldwide from local communities because people are starting to understand that most of the positive impacts of a data centre will not be seen by the local community.”
8. They make lots of money for investors
Data centres are a quick-return investment. “Basically, you get your return after 5-7 years,” Gauthier Roussilhe told me. Thus, they don’t tend to hang around long, with large hyperscale data centres having a typical life of just 15 to 20 years.
Strange then that governments are desperate to lavish subsidies and grants on tech companies. “There was a joke about how Facebook was contributing $2 million to local communities, while they were getting a tax cut of $150 million,” Gauthier said.
With between 5,000 and 8,000 major data centres globally, the market was valued at about $190 billion in 2020, and is expected to grow to over $500 billion in 2030. To get a sense of size, the global video games market was worth about $180 billion in 2020, and the global bicycle market is expected to grow to $180 billion by 2030! If I was asked, which is more important to the future of humanity, bicycles or data centres, I’d choose bicycles.
9. 90% of the data they store is crap
A data centre is really a super-toxic dump. 90% of data is crap and it is growing at scary, exponential levels.
We need to cut the crap. We need to massively reduce data waste because the Earth simply can’t cope for much longer with our data demands. I’ve been working with large data organisations for almost 30 years and in every single one, deleting up to 90% of the data improved everything. The waste data was just getting in the way. I mentioned to Thibault Joubert, a product manager at Microsoft 365, that I was finding that only about 5% to 10% of data is being used 90 days after it’s first stored. “I have similar figures with my clients,” he said.
Why is it so difficult for companies to delete their data? There are a couple of reasons. First, your data – crappy or not – is what they sell to advertisers. Secondly, they make money from you storing your data. They initially give you “free” plans to get you addicted, then when your data builds up they push you to paid-for plans.
At the corporate level, there is currently a highly profitable data migration industry, where consultancies make huge fees helping organisations move their crap data from inhouse servers to the Cloud. (Crap out. Crap in.) Basically, much of Big Tech profits from crap, so there’s no incentive to change.
10. They are a symptom of the Growth Death Cult
It doesn’t make a lot of sense for Ireland to be running around the world desperately trying to incentivise data centres to come here. Why? If my analysis is right, Ireland is currently top of the league in the Growth Death Cult.
One of the key ways we have achieved growth over the past 50 years in Ireland has been by putting our environment up for sale at a very cheap price. When other countries were implementing laws to protect their environment, we saw an opportunity to grow. Come to Ireland, we said in effect. Use our cheap energy and cheap water and you can dump to your heart’s content.
Nobody sane wants a data centre next or near them, so behind the scenes, Big Tech uses the carrot and stick approach, saying that they’ll bring better tech jobs to Ireland if we agree to have their dirty data centres. Sometimes, the threats are public. In 2022, TikTok warned that its expansion in Ireland was “reliant” on getting its data centre accepted.
Irish policy makers seem to be trapped in a bubble where Ireland is still a developing, post-colonial State, desperate for jobs and inward investment. Not many know that after aggressive selling of our ‘practical’ environmental regulations, internationally Ireland is now seen as the number one most mining-friendly country in the world. It’s the same with data centres. We see it as an achievement to bring entities to our shores that other, wiser countries spurn.
The mining oligarchs and the data centres are here for the cheap water, the cheap electricity, the cheap metals and materials. They intend to extract these resources in the fastest possible time, and be gone, leaving behind depleted resources and massive quantities of toxic waste.
We can and must imagine a much better future for Ireland. And not simply for Ireland. The Earth is teetering on the brink of extinction because of 50 years of this rapacious mining mindset. We can’t control what they do elsewhere, but here in Ireland at least, we need to make much wiser decisions.
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