As a society, we are increasingly dependent on digital connectivity. It links us with friends, colleagues and family. It enables us to work from anywhere, stream films and more. Big data is also helping to answer important questions related to, for example, climate change or disease control.

This growing appetite for data and cloud services, from individuals, schools, hospitals, research institutions and businesses, brings with it the need for more and bigger data hubs, thereby creating a dilemma. Connectivity and therefore data centres are a necessity, but their physical presence, land use, and environmental impact are becoming a cause for public and political concern.

To discuss the issues and identify possible solutions, Royal HaskoningDHV held a round table event with leading people from data centres, industry organisations and public sector stakeholders. 

Round table event

Insights

Changing perspectives on the desirability of data centres in the Netherlands

Rules and regulations from national and local governments, are tightening - partly in response to public opinion. Until recently, the Dutch government stressed its position as the gateway to Europe in respect to data and a frontrunner in digital infrastructure. Data centres were warmly welcomed and actively encouraged to invest in the Netherlands. However, national and regional governments are now turning away from this initial attitude as a result of increasing pressure and demands on scarcely available land and energy sources from other sectors such as housing, industry, agriculture and nature. This challenges the data centre sector to put forward convincing arguments and demonstrate added value for society to maintain and secure a license to operate. 

Sustainability as a license to operate 

The dilemma of increasing demand for data with a decreasing acceptance of suppliers is recognised by all participants. The urgency for sustainable business operations is present in the sector, which results in inspiring examples

  • Interxion has an innovative river cooling solution at its Marseille campus in France, which is up to 30 times more energy efficient than traditional cooling systems and will save more than 18,000MWh annually
  • NorthC’s installation of Europe’s first emergency power facilities that run on green hydrogen in Groningen, the Netherlands
  • Equinix will realise an Aquifer Thermal Energy Storage (ATES) system in its operating Munich data centre to optimise cooling efficiency and reduce the site’s overall carbon footprint 
These and other innovative sustainable solutions by the data centre sector have already delivered huge improvements in resource usage and energy efficiency. But even though there are numerous sustainability initiatives across the sector, many participants indicate that it is hard to improve the reputation of the sector with the public and the government. 

To further innovate in the sector, data centres cannot stand alone. Potential solutions, like heat exchange networks, need surrounding recipients like ports or cities to build a sustainable ecosystem where data centres fit in. Partnerships and stakeholder management are vital for the sector, posing changing demands on the mindset and capabilities of highly technical and knowledge-oriented companies.

Best practices that point the way forward

During the session, inspiring examples of a sustainable way forward were explored. A good example is Amsterdam Westpoort that is currently being constructed. It shows how innovative data centres can become part of the solution, rather than the problem. Every aspect of the development has been designed to minimise impact, from the site location to the circular architectural design: once it has outlived its purpose, it can be converted into apartments. What is more, the construction addresses power capacity challenges facing the city. It helps reduce city power demand by providing heat exchange for the port of Amsterdam. 

Amsterdam Westpoort Data Centre

Another example comes from Goodman, in which the organisation’s strategy to create sustainable buildings is driven by the significant role they play in protecting the environment and safeguarding the future. The strategy for carbon neutrality not only encompasses energy, circularity and offsetting, it also extends beyond the four walls of the structures and include brownfields, biodiversity and wellbeing. 

In determining the way forward, the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (SDIA) created a roadmap to sustainable digital infrastructure by 2030. As most data centres are already powered by renewables there is a wider issue to address. It requires not only greater transparency from data centres, more responsibility from IT is also needed to evolve solutions that reduce the digital sector’s environmental impact. Are we looking at the wrong problem - should software developers be asked to minimise gigabytes to halt the unsustainable growth in demand?

These examples show the way forward towards sustainable data centres that are aligned with, and add value to, the needs of the environment that surrounds them. Thus, creating value for the business and for society alike. 

If you’d like to find out more – or want more guidance on how you can take these steps yourself - download our recent white paper on how to embrace sustainability or get in touch.

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