Greenpeace seeks green data centre grid powered by renewables

Greenpeace Greenpeace

The Earth’s climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last 650,000 years, there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilisation.

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Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives.

While some don’t feel responsible for global warming, the evidence points clearly at an array of things including industries that still practise the heavy use of fossil fuels.

Gary Cook, Senior IT Sector Analyst and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace reveals to Abigail Opiah that there is no time to waste because climate change is already here and happening now.

We are seeing dramatic changes in ecosystems around the world from forest fires in California to loss of sea ice in the Artic and major flooding in every continent that is outside the norm. Cook adds that we are also witnessing periods of much more extreme weather and significant loss of ecosystems.

“Projections of having another drought in California are already on the horizon for next year. This is why you see a lot of concern across the spectrum but especially from the youth who are worried about the future they are inheriting, because we haven’t taken action,” he says.

“On the positive side, we have the technology to tackle the problem, we just lack the ambition and the political conviction to follow through. We
also have companies that have been profiting from the status quo which is causing climate change – making more money from fossil fuels which is something we need to keep away from.

“The next ten years are critical, and this is certainly relevant to the data centre sector because within the next ten years, the industry is expecting huge growth. It is important that people building data centres around the world build digital infrastructure in a way that is consistent with tackling climate change aggressively.”

Data Centres Tackle Climate Change

This year alone there has been a noticeable shift in the push towards upping renewable initiatives in the data centre sector. Efficiency and clean energy are key components of key data centre players’ strategy to design, build and operate sustainable data centres.

Cook reveals that what he would like to see is the data centre industry become a sector completely run by renewable energy and move away from fossil fuels all together as rapidly as possible, and certainly within the next 10 years.

Gary Cook

“You are building critical infrastructure for the entire world – thus you will see a huge market risk for companies who decide to defer from taking action, because there is a demand from the public for the move to 100% renewable energy resources,” he adds.

“We would want to see a partnership from the industry to make sure that we are driving towards a sector that is renewably powered and fossil fuel free. It is a big challenge, but if you look at where the sector was ten years ago and see how much it has grown as well as the progress it has made, it shows that decisions about how the infrastructure is built, are critical to whether we will be able to transition away from fossil fuels in time.”


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Government Involvement

“There is a huge need for change in policy and there is a big opportunity for data centre operators and internet companies to help change the policies that will shift things in the right direction. They need to be demanding that there is a moratorium on any new investment in fossil fuels and make sure that investment is directed towards renewable solutions,” adds Cook.

“The government needs to play a role in that – we are already seeing a lot of incentives, but they need to get in and change the policy because it is the policy on renewable energy and energy investments that needs to change – having some additional incentives is not sufficient enough.”

This summer, two municipalities within the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area announced a temporary pause in issuing new permits for new data centre projects in their regions.

Since the announcement, there has been an ongoing dialogue between trade association Dutch Data Centre Association (DDA) and governmental parties on both a regional and national level.

An action plan is expected to be finalised before the end of this year, according to the DDA. The association also revealed that the government and industry have agreed upon a durable collaboration to establish a strategy for sustainable growth of data centres in Amsterdam and beyond.

“You will see more places putting a moratorium on the building of data centres if we continue to not have enough transition in where our power is coming from. The alternative is to put the moratorium on the expansion of fossil fuels and start taking it off the grid rather than a moratorium on data centres is something the sector should get behind to help make that transition happen faster,” he says.

“On the good news side, we have seen some companies step up and have made commitments to renewable energy and has driven significant investments into renewables as a result. If you look at Virginia which has the largest concentration of data centres in the world, what is that driving?

It is driving more investments to natural gas. The obstacles are clear – it is usually utilities that do not want to make the transition, and we have not had that be the focus of decision making for data centre operators and as a result utilities offer renewables at a premium.”

Markets Making Moves

It is no secret that some data centre markets are more progressive in its fight to tackle climate change head-on than others. Cook explains that some of the utilities in the US and Europe have already put their foot down and have said they will not be building any more data centres powered by fossil fuels.

“If you look at some of the California utilities, New York, and parts of Scandinavia or the Nordic region where they have significant natural resources, they also have aggressive renewable energy targets. Those kinds of markets where you have policymakers that say, “we are going for 60% power from renewable energy by 2023 and are looking to be at 100% by 2050”, should give you confidence as someone who is making multi-million dollar investments that those markets will be transitioning in the right direction,” he concludes.

“In other markets, like many parts of the US, central and eastern Europe as well as Asia, you still have utilities that want to continue the coal age and are resisting the transition away from coal – which means a higher cost that would be passed back to the customer.

“The ten-year timeframe to have data centres 100% powered by renewable energy resources is achievable. We don’t have to invest in the technology – renewables that can power data centres to scale exist, and the cost has dropped dramatically.

“We need to focus on deploying that at scale. I have full confidence that we can see a dramatic transition and build digital infrastructure that will accelerate our transition to renewable energy at the speed the climate time says it is necessary.”

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