How the tide turned on data centres in Europe

PARIS – Every time we make a call on Zoom, upload a document to the cloud or stream a video, our computers connect to vast warehouses filled with servers to store or access data.

Not so long ago, European countries were falling over themselves to welcome the firms that run these warehouses, known as data centres or bit barns.

Wide-eyed politicians trumpeted investments and dreamt of creating global technology hubs. But then the dream went sour.

The sheer amount of energy and water needed to power and cool these server farms shocked the public. The industry sucked up 14 per cent of Ireland’s power last year, London warned home builders that power shortages caused by bit barns could affect new projects, and Amsterdam said it simply had no more room for the warehouses.

Then things got worse. The war in Ukraine helped spark an energy crisis across the continent, leaving consumers facing rocketing bills and countries contemplating energy shortages.

“Data centres will be a target,” critical blogger Dwayne Monroe told AFP, saying the focus would only grow if Europe cannot fix its energy crisis.

Grassroots campaigns and local opposition have already helped to halt projects this year by Amazon in France, Google in Luxembourg and Meta in the Netherlands.

The Irish government, while reaffirming support for the industry, put strict limits on new developments until 2028.

The data industry says it feels unfairly targeted, stressing its efforts to source green energy and arguing that outsourcing storage to bit barns has helped slash consumption.

These arguments are playing out most spectacularly in Ireland. Activists are campaigning on a broad range of topics and using local forums to push their case.

“They take up a huge amount of space, but provide basically no employment,” said Ms Madeleine Johansson, a Dublin councillor for the People Before Profit party, which is campaigning on the issue.

Ms Johansson recently had a motion passed in her council area banning the centres, sparking an almighty row with the national government that is yet to be resolved.

Mr Dylan Murphy of Not Here, Not Anywhere, one of several climate groups pushing the issue in Ireland, has filed a motion in his local council in Fingal calling for companies to reveal the kind of information they are holding.

“There is a complete lack of transparency… about what data is actually being stored in these data centres,” he said, calling it a “veil of shadow”.