Amsterdam to open environmental talks with datacentres

City authorities and datacentre operators will open dialogue about sustainable datacentre industry expansion in the Dutch capital

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Europe: CW Europe: Amsterdam reins back datacentre developments over environmental concern

Amsterdam is preparing to negotiate environmental targets with datacentre operators after city representatives passed a regulatory statement that raised the environmental concerns of its left-leaning council chamber without imposing “strict” rules that it had threatened for the data-tech sector.

The Netherlands capital’s long-awaited datacentre policy, in preparation for which it stopped issuing building permits for major datacentre construction projects 18 months ago, will nevertheless have a significant impact on the sector, according to official documents.

The December vote passed an historic declaration that Amsterdam city centre, which co-hosts continental Europe’s largest conglomeration of datacentres, would effectively extend its suspension of construction permits for a further five years. Beyond 2025, Amsterdam officials could not be certain that the city’s electricity grid would be capable of accommodating any more large datacentres.

Officials told Computer Weekly they were drafting plans with grid operator Liander to build electricity infrastructure in Amsterdam’s urban centre, but their policy committed representatives to a plan to build Amsterdam’s next cluster of datacentres in Almere, a municipality 30km away.

Amsterdam anticipated that its central grid infrastructure would be inadequate to cope with increasing demand from datacentres after 2030, as it also strove to get other industries and households to use electricity instead of fossil fuels, to meet national targets to cut CO2 emissions. 5G, autonomous cars and virtual reality promise to increase public demand for internet data services “exponentially”, the European Union estimated recently.

With these constraints in mind, Amsterdam’s datacentre policy set a limit on datacentre growth in the city for the next decade. And with elected representatives calling for environmental regulations to be imposed on datacentre operators, the policy set out strict demands for sustainability.

The construction limit would, however, permit ongoing construction of major datacentres at a rate that would accommodate the industry’s own growth estimates. The policy’s small print said that promised environmental measures would not be imposed by law after all, but agreed in practice, and in private with operators, in months to come.

“Instead of imposing rules, we would like to sit down with the sector and talk about what is doable and what is workable for all of us,” said one policy official, who asked not to be named. “If we can find common ground, we believe we can go further than imposing rules unilaterally.”

In reality, Amsterdam’s permitted major construction would be taken up almost entirely until 2025 by large operators whose plans to extend existing sites have already been agreed with the city – notably US datacentre giant Equinix, and the Anglo-Chinese Global Switch, according to public documents.

Any further growth would be limited by the physical capacity of the city’s grid, and its lack of available land. Officials presented an annual construction limit of 67MVA – the total amount that operators could demand of the local electricity grid to reserve the energy capacity they would need to run new datacentres. Growth would be limited to four industrial zones already designated as sites suitable for datacentres.

Read more about the Amsterdam datacentre hub

Dutch Data Center Association chief Stijn Grove said there would, in effect, be no restraint on industry growth. The neighbouring municipality of Haarlemmermeer, which, with Amsterdam central, houses most of the datacentres sited in the Greater Amsterdam Metropolitan Region, and 60% of all those in the Netherlands, had room for growth, he said.

Haarlemmermeer set its own 70MVA annual limit in October, in collaboration with Amsterdam. Between them, they would accommodate as much growth each year as half of Greater Amsterdam’s entire 2019 datacentre industry. Their limits would, by 2030, accommodate an industry almost three times as large as it is now. But after 2030, there would simply be no more room for datacentres, the Almere municipality decreed in October.

By then, Amsterdam expects to have prepared energy and communications infrastructure to support a cluster of datacentres in Almere, which, pending local authority approval, will join the three existing “hyperconnectivity” clusters upon which the city bases its claim to be one of the world’s major internet communications hubs.

The other clusters have developed in Amsterdam and Haarlemmermeer near the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, where corporations, telcos and cloud computing providers sited their computer servers to increase the speed of inter-network communications.

Industry had wanted a fourth central cluster within 10km of the others, to keep the cost of communications infrastructure low. But Almere had ample free space, proximity to the largest wind farm being built in the Netherlands, and to large housing developments that it was envisaged might benefit from having datacentres next door.

Operators have been trialling ways to pipe the excess heat drawn off their vast banks of energy-intensive computer processors into community heating networks. Municipal policies criticised the fact that datacentres emit 90% of the energy they consume as waste heat, and welcomed the possibility that this might instead heat people’s homes and help reduce environmental harm. But the heat generated is hot enough for only the most modern, energy-efficient homes, such as those being built in Almere.

The industry backed the Almere plan wholeheartedly, according to analysts commissioned by Amsterdam to consider the options last year. In fact, Almere had been declared the first-choice location in 2018, in collaboration with Amsterdam economic officials, government ministries of the interior, economics and infrastructure, other regional governments, and the power companies.

The elected aldermen who called for the construction halt and initiated the drafting of the datacentre policy in 2019 – Amsterdam and Haarlemmermeer cabinet members for environment and housing Marieke van Doorninck and Mariëtte Sedee – pledged to mandate that datacentres in the city must feed their excess heat to the city’s existing public heating network, and that they must use only sustainable electricity.

But the policy that aldermen voted through in December said there would be no mandates, promising that “strict” environmental controls would be agreed with industry in the coming months.

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