In a small Dutch town, a dead man quarrels over a huge data center - The Washington Post

In a small Dutch town, a dead man quarrels over a huge data center – The Washington Post

The view from the stables of farm Heald and Leon de Goes, who live near the field where Meta, the parent company of Facebook, wanted to build a data center in Zeewold, Netherlands, on May 21, 2022.
The view from the stables of farm Heald and Leon de Goes, who live near the field where Meta, the parent company of Facebook, wanted to build a data center in Zeewold, Netherlands, on May 21, 2022. (Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The Washington Post)

AMSTERDAM – In December, over the objections of many locals, the Dutch farming community in Zeewolde agreed to set up a massive data center for Meta, Silicon Valley’s parent company for Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The data center, to be built on farmland spanning 245 NFL fields, was to be powered entirely by clean energy, part of Holland’s stadium as a country that could help support Europe’s computing needs while also protecting the environment.

But the project’s perennial opponents have managed to oust the current local government, prompt some national lawmakers to push for a rein in data centers and push the tech giant to delay its plans — for now.

The standoff over what will be the largest data center in the Netherlands – known as “ultra-scale” because it spans at least 10,000 square feet and houses more than 5,000 servers – highlights the emerging struggle over how to maintain cloud computing and data flow while protecting the environment, even if this The centers use renewable energy. Dutch officials are also seeking to reconcile decarbonizing the energy sector by the middle of the last century Build 20 to 25 new or expanded data centersZeewolde emerged as a test of what’s possible.

Creating massive data centers to power the new technology “has massive environmental side effects. The question is how governments can, and should, respond to plans by high-tech companies to make such investments in their land,” said Michel de Vries, professor of public administration at Radboud University in the Netherlands.

The town of Zeewolde, surrounded by a small lake and deciduous forest, did not exist until 1979, when its first residents arrived at a planned community built on land reclaimed from the sea. It has grown from a place with no electricity or tap water to a place where nearly 22,000 residents live, many of whom grow onions, sugar beets, potatoes or livestock.

It is also the only city in the country that generates more renewable energy than it consumes from fossil fuels, and hosts one of the largest cities in the country wild wind farms. While this has made it an attractive site for Meta — which aims to serve tens of millions of European Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp users with a single data center — it has raised questions about whether Dutch officials can reconcile their quest to dominate this corner of the computing market with the goals of sustainability of the nation.

De Vries estimated that according to Meta’s forecast, the data center will consume at least 1.3 terawatts of electrical energy per year, which will benefit from a huge share of renewable energy in the country.

“This is equal to the total energy consumption of all households in the city of Amsterdam,” de Vries said in a telephone interview. “This is not a trifle.”

The Netherlands, which is slightly larger than Maryland, already hosts nearly 200 data centers, including Google and Microsoft hyperscales. De Vries said the government has been “very keen” on hiring such projects, introducing low taxes and discounted electricity prices.

These processes account for about 2 percent of the country’s energy demand, according to Martin Visser, a lecturer in energy transition at the Hanse University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, and use 10 percent of wind energy.

Visser added that the Netherlands aims to Increase the supply of wind energy Between now and the end of the decade by offshore turbines, but he said a major expansion of data centers could drain that extra supply.

While local leaders in Zeewold have been talking to Meta, formerly known as Facebook, since 2019, those plans attracted national attention only late last year when its local council voted to change a zoning plan to reallocate farmland as an industrial zone. This move will clear the way for the national government, which has the power, to sell the land and transfer it to Meta.

Farmers and other residents, as well as organizations such as Nord LTOa trade association of growers and gardeners in the area, objected before the vote.

LTO President Jaap Loders said in an interview that due to its roots salvaged from the sea, Zeewold’s soil is uniquely rich – the best in the country – and should be dedicated to farming. But land is not the only resource at risk.

“We are also concerned about the quality of the water,” he said. The local canal water will be used for cooling, but to protect the cooling systems it will be treated with chemicals, and then returned to the canal. But we have no guarantee that it will be clean.”

Local activist in Zeewolde, Susan Chap, who has lived in Zeewold for 25 years, has been leading the accusation against the building of the center for more than a year as head of the centre. DataTruc Zeewolde FoundationCommunity protest group. The organization has sought to mobilize support for this cause Through a website, a petition and – somewhat ironically – a Facebook page.

“We are using Facebook against Facebook,” she said in an interview. “Because of the noise we made — we kept screaming and yelling to focus on this issue — now people in government in The Hague are scratching their heads and thinking, ‘Maybe we need to think about a new policy on super metrics. “

Now, these projects face even more stringent scrutiny. In February, the country’s Minister of Housing and Spatial Planning, Hugo de Jong, said he would place a nine-month hold on awarding applications for new data centers while reviewing their suitability for a national plan that charts future development given climate impacts and other challenges.

But de Jong made it clear that this pause did not apply to the Zeewold project, because the national home affairs minister, who has the authority to sell the land in question, assured the local government last August that the sale could take place.

But the voters of Zeewolde had other plans. In March, elected officials who supported the data center lost an overwhelming majority to Leefbaar ZeewoldeThe party that opposed the project.

Shortly after that local election, Kristen Tonesen, a senator from the pro-environmental party Pärtges Für de Derin (“Party of the Animals”) brought in a movement The government is required to make the planned metadata center subject to the government’s ongoing environmental review.

The motion, which said the project would impose a “heavy burden on energy supplies, fertile farmland and scarce fresh water supplies” passed by 13 votes to 4.

“Ten minutes after the vote, there was a message in our national news that Meta was pausing its plans to put the data center there,” Teunissen recalled in an interview.

META issued a statement emphasizing its focus on maintaining good relations with the local population.

“We strongly believe in being good neighbours, so from day one of this trip, we have ensured that a good fit between our project and the community is first and foremost among the criteria we take into account when starting and continuing our development operations,” the company said. “Due to the current circumstances, we have decided to discontinue our development efforts at Zeewolde.”

Sten Grove, managing director of the Dutch Data Center Consortium, said many who oppose these operations still rely on them in their daily lives.

“Even though everyone is working from home, everyone is constantly on their cell phones, watching Netflix… and they still don’t want data centers,” he said. “There is a real separation in this world.”

Grove said he would welcome a national policy rather than the current piecemeal approach.

“Central policy on digital infrastructure, because we all need it. But we push it to lower layers of government, and then it spreads, and no one is in charge, and things get messy,” he said. “And that’s what I saw in Zeewolde. You can’t have a goal where you say we want to advance digitally, and on the other hand you don’t have a policy on the digital infrastructure needed for that.”

Senator Arda Jerkins, who belongs to the Socialist Party and voted in favor of the proposal, acknowledged that the nation needs data centers but says the government must weigh the data centers it allows and the resources it absorbs.

“[Meta’s plans] It would mean that the current sustainable energy is going to that data center instead of going into the homes.” “If you have scarce sustainable energy and scarce landscapes, you have to look at the added value of this data center. Basically, Facebook has no added value. Not in my opinion.”

Prof de Vries said the government could set some standards for these sites.

“You can say you can’t use drinking water,” he said. “Put solar panels on your roof. Build big walls to reduce noise levels. Build a beautiful data center, not just a block of bricks—something not too ugly.”

In the end, the Minister of Planning will decide whether the Meta can buy land in Zeewolde. “If Hugo de Jonge says we’re going to sell it, then Meta can go on,” Teunissen said.

Some in Zeewolde, like farmer Leon de Gross, still hope the company will build the computing center. In an interview, he noted that the community always planned to use part of the site for an industrial purpose, and a data center would be a less inconvenient option than a distribution warehouse or some other business.

“We are happy with dead as a neighbor,” he said, “and I hope they come.” “I’ve seen the plans for the data center,” he says. I was surprised. This is beautiful. It is green. There are trees, there is wood and water. …cows can still roam. It’s wonderful.”

But for now, local activist Shab is relieved by Meta’s decision to reevaluate his plans. “It’s not up to Mark Zuckerberg to decide whether or not a data center is welcome here,” she said, referring to Meta CEO. “We don’t want it. Seventy percent of the villagers don’t want this thing here.”

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