Facebook server farm powered by ‘clean energy’ will increase Denmark's greenhouse emissions

By Stan Cox and Paul Cox
February 8, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Last month, social-media giant Facebook announced plans to build a new data center near Odense, Denmark. The expansion of server capacity was needed, the company said, to support "richer content" such as live-streaming and virtual reality.

The Facebook executive who made the public announcement (live-streamed, of course), noted that the new facility would have the "smallest footprint possible" and be "powered by 100 percent clean and renewable energy."  

But recent reports by Rasmus Svaeborg for the Danish newspaper Information tell a different story. What may resemble, at least in the view from Silicon Valley, an exercise in green corporate responsibility is actually a case of capitalist greenwashing that will mean a big increase in Denmark's contribution to greenhouse warming.   

Data centers consume prodigious quantities of electricity to power servers and keep them cooled down. The Danish government estimates that server farms now planned or under construction—primarily Facebook's and another being built by Apple in the town of Viborg —will add 4 million megawatt-hours, or about 13 percent, to the nation's current annual electricity consumption. Between now and 2040, server farms will account for a whopping one-third of the expected increase in Denmark's electricity demand.

Facebook and Apple are eager for their new data centers to share the bright green aura that surrounds Denmark's strong wind-energy commitment. But only about half of the country's electricity is supplied by renewable sources, so there's no spare green energy available to cover Silicon Valley's needs. The increase in national power consumption spurred by the new facilities will have to be generated from nonrenewable sources.

So the two corporations won't have "the smallest footprint possible" on Danish soil; they'll actually be substantially boosting the country's carbon output. Under the European Union's carbon emissions quota system, the server-powered increase in Denmark's emissions is supposed to be balanced by reductions in other countries' emissions. But that won't happen. Svaneborg quotes Peter Birch Sørensen, chair of the Danish government's Climate Council, who explains: "There is still a huge surplus of allowances [in the EU system], so increased emissions from Denmark will not cause lower emissions from other EU countries."

Even the prospect of getting green facelifts, on its own, would not have been enough to entice the two corporations to set up shop in Denmark. According to Svaneborg, the crucial inducement was the ongoing rollback of an electricity tax called the Public Service Obligation (PSO). The elimination of the PSO will save the typical Danish household the equivalent of only a few dollars on its monthly bill. But it also means, writes Svaneborg, that the government will supply renewable electricity to businesses (including the new data centers) "at a price that is below production costs," in effect encouraging them to consume more power and trigger more emissions.

There are additional ways in which repeal of the tax could hamper efforts to reduce Denmark's dependence on fossil fuels. Revenue from the PSO was earmarked exclusively for renewable energy development. Now, funds to foster new wind farms will have to come out of the taxpayer-supported general budget, where they will be politically vulnerable in every year's round of government budgeting and appropriation.

The PSO was introduced to avoid this very state of affairs during the liberalization of the power sector in the 1990s, and it's a key reason why Denmark can offer tech companies such a green bounty of wind energy today. The country's renewable energy capacity was carefully cultivated over many years with a subsidy from every Danish power customer. Now Facebook and Apple have simply arrived for the harvest.

Given their vast cash reserves and self-proclaimed commitments to green energy, the two corporations could have built their own wind farms to power their new server farms, rather than piggybacking on Denmark's renewable energy efforts. But even that would not have solved the deeper problem: wind and solar development, whoever is doing it, is a perpetual game of catch-up. Across the globe, whether in countries like Denmark who have vigorous clean-energy development or in slacker countries like the United States, capitalism's uncanny ability to crank out profitable new electricity-dependent goods and services is easily capable of outstripping the buildup of renewable energy capacity.

Growth in technologies designed to curb air pollution (such as electric cars), to soften the impact of greenhouse warming (such as air conditioning), to purvey entertainment that can provide comfort in a world on the brink (such as streaming video), and to provide myriad of other services threatens to scuttle efforts to wean the global economy from fossil-fueled electricity. We could double the United States' solar generation capacity tomorrow, and there would still not be sufficient solar energy available to run the nation's server farms, let alone support further growth.

Global efforts to curb greenhouse emissions were derailed last year by US voters. And image-conscious US corporations are doing nothing to get things back on track when they play the "powered by 100 percent renewable energy" shell game.

This article was originally published by Green Social Thought. Stan Cox (@CoxStan) and Paul Cox (@Paul_Cox) are the authors of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia. Write to them at cox{at}howtheworldbreaks.com.

Big technology corporations such as Google or Facebook need very powerful servers in order to be able to deliver their services. This represent a huge challenge for climate change and our environment. At the same time, theses companies enable to connect people from all over the world and this is what makes Internet such a great innovation ( I started a blog on this topic if you are interested by the way: https://matthisduarte.com/ ).

We should find a sustainable way to run this kind of technology infrastructures in order to protect our environment.

Thanks for this great article.
Hope to talk with you soon.