Is putting data centres in the ocean a waste of energy?
15 November 2018

Is putting data centres in the ocean a waste of energy?

As if we needed reminding that climate change was well and truly in full swing all around us, it’s possible to write this blog rueing the end of ‘summer’ as if it was only weeks ago, because it was. The months of June to October have been astoundingly warm. There’s no doubt that it is enjoyable to be able to break out the BBQ on a regular basis during the summer months. The stark reality is that we are currently careering toward the edge that is the precipice of reparable climate change. In the recent warning given by United Nations scientists, there is a mere 12 years within which to ensure that global warming remains at 1.5C. The risk? Hundreds of millions of people in droughts, floods and poverty.

The Digital Revolution and the environment

The relationship between technology and environmental sustainability is symbiotic. After all, improved technology means greater efficiency. Greater efficiency results in a lesser impact on the environment. However, there is one area of the technology world where this is not the case – the data centre.

Data centre size and numbers have grown as the overwhelming majority of our personal and working lives has moved online. The amount of energy consumed by data centres has risen to an alarming amount. There are many who believe the digital revolution is putting the environment at risk. Some of the technology world’s largest offenders have made commitments to building smarter and more responsibly powered data centres.

Project Natick

Amongst these efforts to reduce the cost of running data centres is Microsoft’s Project Natick. A novel idea that recently grabbed headlines. Currently, in its trial phase, the premise behind Project Natick is that by placing data centres at the bottom of the sea will cost less to cool. Thus reducing the amount of energy used and improving sustainability. So far, so sensible. But given the sheer number of new data centres needed worldwide and current concerns about rising ocean temperatures, you might ask yourself whether using the ocean as a heat exchange for Microsoft’s future data centre expansion is a little short-sighted.

More problematic is the way Project Natick and many other data centre operations treat the heat produced by data centres – i.e. as waste. As the cold weather begins to bite here in the UK, the annual warnings of fuel poverty and the grim reality for many vulnerable people whose lives are at risk because of rising energy costs have hit the headlines. Within the context of smart towns and cities, data centres can play a role not only in connecting technology but also heating homes for cheap. Such initiatives are already trialled across Europe. The Stockholm Data Parks initiative in Sweden and the town of Mäntsälä in Helsinki, Finland are both prime examples.

Looking to the future

How we approach the energy consumption of our data centres and then deal with the heat they produce will have a profound impact on climate change. Placing them at the bottom of the sea might solve some problems. Yet common sense says that it may well contribute to others. In our pursuit of cheaper, more accessible and more sustainable energy, we’d be better to turn data centres from consumers to prosumers. The heat produced should be treated as a resource for the good of everyone.