Facebook’s data center plans rile residents in the Netherlands

Facebook’s data center plans rile residents in the Netherlands
Robin Utrecht | Abaca Press | Alamy

When Susan Schaap, 61, travels from her Dutch hometown of Zeewolde to the nearest city of Leylystad, the 30-minute drive takes her through vast tulip fields, interrupted only by wind turbines and sometimes sheep. But if Facebook parent company Meta’s plans are approved, her view would be replaced by the Netherlands’ largest ever data center.

Meta’s data center is “too big for a small town like Zeewolde,” says Schaap, who has become one of the project’s most vocal opponents. “There are 200 data centers in the Netherlands already,” she argues, and the move would give huge swathes of farmland to just one company, “which is not fair.”

Like Schaap, other residents of Zeewolde are outraged that Meta has chosen their town for its first gigantic data center in the Netherlands. They claim the company will be allowed to syphon off a large percentage of the country’s renewable energy supply to power porn, conspiracy theories, and likes on Meta’s social platforms.

Their attitude reflects a wider shift against Big Tech’s plans to flock to the Netherlands, one of three key hubs for data centers in Europe alongside the UK and Germany, turning the issue into a national debate ahead of local elections later this year.

Amsterdam is home to a major Internet exchange, which distributes traffic from data centers nearby, and it has attracted tech giants looking for better connectivity and fibere to set up giant, “hyperscale” data centers to process their own data nearby.

Microsoft built the first hyperscale in the Netherlands in 2015. Since then, two more have been built, and that number is expected to grow, according to trade group the Dutch Data Center Association. But Meta’s plan for the Zeewolde site, known as Tractor Field 4, is by far the biggest yet. It would span 166 hectares, the equivalent of more than 1,300 Olympic swimming pools, and would devour 1,380 gigawatt-hours of energy a year, at least double what the municipality’s 22,000 residents consume in the same period.

The fate of Tractor Field 4 has sparked protests and prompted 5,000 people to sign a petition. Schaap has set up a formal organization—Sichting DataTruc—to give locals’ voices more weight with the council. Different groups have different concerns, but each insists it is not opposed to data centers per se. “We don’t oppose data centers at all,” says Caroline de Roos of the biodiversity group Land von Ons. “What we are opposed to is the use of this superb, really excellent agricultural ground for the data center or any industry. It’s a waste of cropland.” For Schaap, the size is the issue. “It is out of proportion,” she says. “Seventy percent of the people that were asked [in a recent survey] are against a hyperscale like this, because it’s too big, it asks too much of our electricity, it asks too much of our water.”

Zeewolde residents’ argument that the data center will take from the community without giving much in return is exacerbated by what they know about Meta’s social media empire. At the top of the Facebook page Schaap set up to oppose the plans is a sketch by cartoonist Ronald Oudman, showing five buildings towering over the flat Dutch countryside. Each is emblazoned with a label that says “PORNO, FAKE NEWS, SILLY CHATS, LIKES AND COMMENTS and CONSPIRACY THEORIES.” “It has nothing to do with medical applications for hospitals or banking applications, it’s not for any purpose but for fun,” says Schaap. “We don’t gain too much from all this. [Meta] speaks about community programs and social return. But that’s just a big joke, because it’s going to be peanuts compared to what we give to them.”

A spokesperson for Meta declined to comment on concerns over the type of data it would process in the Netherlands, but said that the company wants to be a “good neighbor for everyone in the area,” and that it plans to partner with the local community if the data center goes ahead. The Zeewolde council says on its website that Meta has agreed to invest in the local economy and make residual heat generated by the data center free of charge.

Despite local opposition, the council and the town’s alderman (a local policymaker) have remained supportive. “We believe the data center will have a positive impact on the region,” alderman Egge Jan de Jonge told regional newspaper De Stentor in December.

On December 17, Zeewolde’s council ruled in favor of granting Meta a permit to use the land. The legitimacy of that vote, however, was quickly thrown into doubt. Just four days later, the Dutch Senate challenged the decision, meaning the national government must now make a final call. It is unclear whether the decision will come before or after local elections in March 2022.

Meta describes the vote as “a positive outcome,” but a spokesperson said the decision to build in Zeewolde was not final. “There is still a significant amount of work to do before an investment decision can be considered.”

One of the most common arguments against the facility is its huge demand for green energy that was destined for Dutch homes. The data center “uses an enormous amount of electricity, of which a big part is green electricity, which we don’t have much of in the Netherlands anyway,” says de Roos. The new Dutch government echoed this sentiment in its December coalition agreement, saying that “hyperscale data centers place an unreasonably large demand on the available renewable energy in relation to their societal or economic value.”

These arguments are off-base, because it’s not the data centers using the energy but people who are spending time online, argues Stijn Grove, managing director of the Dutch Data Center Association, which counts Google and Microsoft among its members.

“Politicians are complaining, but they’re also using Facebook and Instagram constantly to put their messages across,” he says. “By complaining about data centers you’re basically complaining about the use of email, the use of Internet, the use of the cloud.”

Grove cites data published by the International Energy Agency that shows data centers’ energy use has stayed stable over the past decade even as the industry boomed. “If you actually look at the energy use of data centers in the Netherlands, it’s 0.32 percent, so that’s very little,” he says. Instead, he believes that the tech industry’s race for renewables is actually fueling the Netherlands’ green energy sector by driving market demand and helping new wind parks get financed.

Sanne Akerboom, assistant professor of regulation and governance of the Energy Transition at the Netherlands’ Utrecht University, also believes the argument that data centers are using up the country’s green energy is misguided. Data centers are often built in close proximity to wind farms, she says, “So the perception that it uses a lot or most of the renewable electricity is easily made, but there are not enough data centers to use up the entire supply.”

Instead she believes that local residents are right in arguing that they don’t get much in return for hosting data centers. The Netherlands has always supported lower energy prices for high-demand users to make investing there more appealing, she says. This structure incentivizes companies to run one huge data center rather than a series of smaller ones, because it’s cheaper, she argues, so they don’t really pay toward setting up renewable energy infrastructure, but “take up basically all the profits.”

Zeewolde is not the only Dutch community to clash with the data industry’s expansion.

In 2019, Amsterdam placed a one-year moratorium on the building of new projects, citing that the area was now one of the regions with the most data centers in the world. “The arrival of data centers is in a sense a consequence of our own consumption and lifestyle patterns,” a city spokesperson said at the time. “But they also take up a lot of space and, due to the high energy consumption, place a large burden on the electricity grid.” There has also been controversy about a Microsoft facility in Wieringermeer taking the majority of the electricity produced by 82 local wind turbines.

Companies like Meta are also encountering a new type of data nationalism, where people protest Dutch resources being used to power Internet use beyond Dutch borders. “There is already an overcapacity compared to data use in the Netherlands,” campaign group Save the Wieringermeer, which is trying to stop the development of Microsoft’s latest data center, says on its website. “After all, only 25 to 35 percent of the total data center capacity in the Netherlands is used for Dutch data.”

Dutch local councillor Lars Ruiter broke away from his political party, VVD, after an argument over the secrecy surrounding the development of local data centers. In his local area, Hollands Kroon, the plans for a new Microsoft 50-hectare hyperscale were unveiled in 2020 and construction began soon after. In January 2021, Microsoft was granted a license for another 16-hectare data center in the same business park.

A similar tactic was used by Meta, according to media outlet AD, which reported that when the Zeewolde project was first being discussed with local farmers, American representatives only used their first names in video calls so the company they worked for couldn’t be identified.

Ruiter, who now runs as a councillor for an independent party, is not against data centers but opposes the way negotiations are being carried out. “Governments need to be more transparent about it,” he says. “They need to ask the people who live around data centers what they think about it and what they want.”

This story originally appeared on wired.com.



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