Data centers blamed for London’s electricity crisis, but the problem is a bigger one

Property developers in three west London boroughs have been told of limitations are on new building because the local electricity infrastructure cannot cope, with part of the blame being placed on data centers.

As reported yesterday by the FTthe Greater London Authority (GLA) has written to builders warning them that it might take until 2035 for grid infrastructure to be upgraded sufficiently to allow new connections in Hillingdon, Ealing and Hounslow.

Electricity networks in the area are running to capacity, and the GLA specifically mentioned the presence of data centers that “use large quantities of electricity, the equivalent of towns or small cities, to power servers and ensure resilience in service”.

The area, one end of the M4 corridor, is indeed home to many data centers including Virtus and Ark facilities in Hayes and ReWire in Ealing, each of which draws tens of megawatts of power, but substantial and growing data center capacity also exists in other parts of the capital too, including the City and East London. With the rapid rate of data center growth and the slow pace of infrastructure upgrades, it is surely only a matter of time before the grid hits capacity elsewhere.

And it’s not just the UK. The Westelijk Havengebied region of Amsterdam a data center is witnessing the construction of a 100 MW data center that will cover a whopping 100,000 square meters, just the latest of 36 other data centers in and around the Dutch capital. That area is now classified ‘code red’, meaning that no new businesses can be established there and with limits placed on the expansion of existing ones.

“We have actually parked in a city like Haarlem [pop 230,000] on top of Amsterdam in terms of energy consumption. That is asking for trouble,” said David Smeulders, professor of energy technology at Eindhoven University of Technology.

Elsewhere in the Netherlands, plans by Meta for an even larger 200 MW data center in a rural area have been blocked by central government in part because of concerns over sustainability, water use and monopolization of energy, but also because it was felt that regulations are not keeping up with the rapid expansion of such facilities, and there needs to be a pause for review.

The UK’s regulatory regime is also behind the times when it comes to marrying planning, consumer, business and energy needs, and the country requires much more joined-up thinking, according to Laura Sandys, chair of the Energy Digitalisation Taskforce, a working group that comes under the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

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“Government departments and Ofgem are currently based in silos and not looking at whole systems,” she said during a discussion of the National Grid’s Future Energy Scenario 2022, the electricity and gas utility company’s latest report into the UK’s energy infrastructure needs.

It’s not just a data center problem. As we move away from liquid and gaseous fossil fuels to power vehicles, homes and businesses, electricity grids will have to take far more of the strain.

If all cars in the UK were battery powered and used high-speed chargers we’d need a generating capacity of 450 GW to handle the hypothetical peak, or six times the electric power the country produces today.

Upgrading our electricity infrastructure is a vast and urgent undertaking given the imperative of Net Zero, requiring not only an overhaul of the networks, but also a revolution in the way the whole energy market works – with local generation replacing distant centralized power stations, local storage including using cars as batteries to feed the grid, demand side management, micro-management of power, and smart grids – and updated planning laws that look to the long term and weigh competing interests.

Indeed, the issue is not really with enormous data centers themselves, they are actually more energy efficient than smaller facilities, but more with a failure to grasp the big picture.

The limits of the current fragmented, outdated laissez-faire approach are becoming all too apparent. Countries like Japan and South Korea have been leading the way in this approach, setting an example for others to follow.

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