Sweden and the sustainable data centre
Fri 7 Jan 2022
Sustainability is a top concern for the data centre for a number of reasons. In a competitive environment, controlling costs is key; and reducing power and water usage is often more cost-effective. Enterprises that outsource data centre services prefer to engage environmentally-conscious services to support their own sustainability measures. And owners and operators of data centres can demonstrate their commitment to local communities with green initiatives.
For these reasons and more, the pressure to reduce the environmental impact of the data centre is increasing. And in the global data centre market, Sweden is emerging as a leader in data centre sustainability.
As of 2019, top technology firms including Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Google had active sites in Nordic countries, particularly Sweden. This has been credited to a welcoming regulatory environment, stable infrastructure including fiber optic connections, low-cost energy and high availability of renewables, and the benefit of a cooler climate which can be used to offset cooling system requirements.
Sweden has announced a goal of becoming the world’s first fossil-free welfare state. The country plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045 at the latest, and negative emissions thereafter. Governmental support for emissions controls makes Sweden an attractive market for investors in sustainable data centre construction and technologies – driving an expected investment of over $7 billion USD over the next five years.
Stockholm is already a data centre hub for the Nordic countries of Europe, with 55% of total Nordic internet traffic flowing through the city. It is the largest colocation market in the region, with 125+ active network providers and 350 million people physically located within 30 miles of a Stockholm data centre.
Sweden is a leader in reliable, low-cost power, with much of it produced in local hydropower plants. This makes the annual CO2 emissions per server rack much lower in Sweden than in comparable countries in the EU. For comparison, in Germany the annual CO2 emissions per rack averages 66 tons: the equivalent of 66 international air flights from Stockholm to Karachi. In Sweden, the average CO2 emissions per server rack are only 4 KG: the equivalent of a single taxi ride to the airport.
A major concern related to data centre sustainability is ensuring that electric grids are not overloaded by data centre needs, particularly in urban areas. Members of several different parties – government, enterprise, and individuals – have expressed concern with expanding data centre capacity, due to the possibility of overloading the electricity grid. These concerns affect plans to expand existing facilities as well as construction of new data centres, and are often centered around power availability in urban centers where both business and individual demands for power are the highest.
A recent policy brief addressed this issue in Sweden, using the term ‘energy gentrification’ to describe the necessary balance that must be maintained between enterprise requirements (like data centres) and residential, societal needs. This analysis maintains that in the past, local governments green-lighted data centre projects without assessing the potential that grids would be overloaded; and proposes energy gentrification as a lens for assessing grid capacity and balancing energy needs between different groups.
The very cold climate that makes Sweden an attractive location for data centres – offsetting the need for server cooling systems – also makes residential heat a major concern when assessing grid capacity. One method of ensuring data centre sustainability and managing this issue is capturing the waste heat generated by data centres and feeding it back into the grid to heat homes.
For example, the three newest data centres in the Stockholm Data Park have incorporated waste heat distribution into their design. The waste heat from these three data centres will be used to provide heat for 35,000 homes in the Stockholm urban area. Following this model, further capacity expansion can offset grid stress by capture and re-use of data centre waste heat.
Leading by example
One of the best ways to demonstrate the potential for data centre sustainability in Sweden is by looking at the environmental impact of existing facilities. In 2018, Swedish data centre provider EcoDataCentres launched the world’s first carbon-positive data centre in Falun.
And just last year, Microsoft launched a new sustainable data centre region in Sweden, covering areas of Gävle, Sandviken and Staffanstorp. In the announcement, the company said, that “the new datacenter region brings the best of Microsoft’s sustainability investments, powering the datacenter with 100% carbon-free energy and supporting zero-waste operations, underscoring Microsoft’s ongoing investment to help create new long-term opportunities across both commercial and public sectors in Sweden.“
As the data centre industry evolves and changes, owners and operators must balance the needs of their customers with the sustainability of their services, and the needs of the countries and communities in which their facilities are located. With an eye to sustainability, Sweden balances the natural advantages of a cool, stable environment with the created advantages of cheap, renewable energy and a strong infrastructure; making Sweden a leader in the sustainable data centre of the future.