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Green Giants: The heart of a sustainable european data ecosystem

The rapid pace of global digital transformation is driving increasing volumes of data creation, storage, and usage. This voracious data appetite—resulting from trends such as cloud computing, the rise of social media and streaming content, advances in machine learning, growth in internet-connected sensors and devices, and 5G wireless rollout—has led to surging demand for data centre capacity, which can only be expected to continue.

Historically, in Europe, the majority of data centre capacity has been built in prime business and technology centres (focused on Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Dublin — the so-called FLAP-D locations). However, this approach is reaching its limits, particularly due to physical constraints on land, water for cooling and power availability.

Data centre operators are seeking new approaches to keep up with demand. We are already starting to see regional “hyperscale” facilities being built outside urban areas — located where they can take advantage of more abundant and cheaper land and proximate renewable power. But, while much has been achieved to curb the voracious power appetite of these facilities, a step change is needed if we are to continue to power our European digital transformation while at the same time meeting goals for net zero emissions. In addition, the next generation of data centres needs to be environmentally sustainable across their entire lifecycle — from design and construction, through operation, all the way to decommissioning.

As a result, we expect a new breed of regional, environmentally sustainable “Green Giant” data centres to be at the core of the future European data ecosystem. They will not only absorb much of the future growth in data processing demand, but will do so entirely powered by clean electricity. At the same time, they will support, rather than challenge, the regional energy infrastructure, for example through stimulating additional investment in renewable power and injecting much-needed flexibility into the local power grids — increasingly valuable as the proportion of renewables increases overall in Europe. Given their scale, they could also provide further benefits to the local communities, in terms of economic growth, training and other social benefits.

To build and operate such a Green Giant takes careful planning, as we will show in this paper. Sines 4.0©, a new 495MW data centre campus currently being developed in Portugal, is one exemplar of this new breed of Green Giants. It will benefit from around 1GW of dedicated renewable energy generating capacity and will be progressively built beginning in 2022 near Lisbon. The location and site—close to a decommissioned power station with many data and power connection points—will repurpose several existing and legacy infrastructure assets, enabling the planned development to deliver hyperscale capacity in a sustainable, secure and resilient way with extremely low power costs relative to alternatives located in FLAP-D cities. These lower and more stable power costs translate into a 20–25% lower overall operating cost vs a FLAP-D equivalent, and it will also provide a range of additional benefits to the local power system.

It is worth noting that, while Green Giants will provide the lowest-cost and greenest solution for bulk data storage and processing, they will not form the entire solution to the data challenge. There will always be a need for “edge” data centres placed closer to urban source of demand to support data and applications that require extremely low latency. Thus, in the future we expect to see more workload-specific approaches to data processing and storage that match specific user and application requirements. This will need to be supported by IT infrastructure strategies that seamlessly integrate multiple data workload locations across core, edge and endpoints. Given their substantial benefits, Green Giants should be at the core, meeting Europe’s ever-increasing appetite for data while simultaneously overcoming the challenges in FLAP-D locations and significantly reducing climate and other environmental impacts.

The rest of this report details the opportunity for Green Giants in Europe as follows: Chapter 1 lays out the trends in data, data centres and their challenges; Chapter 2 describes “Green Giant” data centres and why we need them; Chapter 3 is a case study on Sines 4.0©; Chapter 4 outlines the potential role for Green Giants in local energy systems; Chapter 5 compares Green Giants with urban data centres and where each is best suited; and Chapter 6 concludes with why Green Giants are destined to play such an important role in the European data ecosystem.

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