The mood about the arrival of the mega data center to Zeewolde has turned and that can only be welcomed with approval. Minister Hugo de Jonge (CDA, Housing and Spatial Planning) saw no possibilities in February to prevent the arrival of the American Meta to the polder. However undesirable the arrival of such a large data center would be. We cannot do otherwise, was the attitude of the cabinet. Somewhat in line with the previous ministers involved Wiebes and Blok who felt that they ‘didn’t care about it’.
But after the council elections, in which the opponents have settled the matter with 14 of the 19 seats, the minister takes a different tone. In order to build the data center, the municipality must purchase another 80 hectares from the Central Government Real Estate Agency. That will make it as difficult as possible for the minister. “It is our land and we have put conditions on its sale. It is highly questionable whether Zeewolde will be able to meet those conditions.”
This has created a stalemate from which the American Meta, owner of Facebook, can draw only one conclusion. The ‘deal is off’ or at least in big trouble. The Senate passed another motion this week, asking to put in place.
Minister De Jonge has taken control, which is more than right. His conclusion, after the elections, that ‘the Netherlands is too small for such data centers’ is correct. Or, as the coalition agreement describes it: “Hyperscale data centers place a disproportionate burden on the available sustainable energy in relation to the social and/or economic added value”. For De Jonge, this is also an opportunity to visibly fulfill the ‘directing function’ in spatial planning, which this cabinet wants to work on (again). There are more ‘files’ in public housing that could use management, given the glaring lack of housing.
From the outset, the proposed establishment of the Meta hyperscale center on purely ‘regional’ grounds was an anomaly. The Giant who asked Little Thumb to make way for a lot of money. And not just because Meta means north-west Europe by ‘region’ and Zeewolde south-east Flevoland.
But also because, under pressure from the climate crisis, the pressure to spend as much sustainable energy as possible is growing as economically as possible. Such a data location that serves half of Europe is then of course a national decision. How much green energy can the Netherlands generate, what share of this is reasonable for data centers, industry and consumers? At the current rate of growth, all data centers would account for nearly 12 percent of national power consumption by 2030.
Inexorably, the question arises as to whether all data is really worth keeping, in the polder, elsewhere or wherever. Citizens rarely wonder where their e-mail, tweets, photos and likes are stored at the large American platform services, which are usually experienced as free. And how much energy consumption is involved. The Zeewolde case makes clear that 400 meters long, 20 meters high and 70 meters wide are required for this, completely filled with buzzing servers. Is that really such a good idea in retrospect?
In short, it turns out that free does not exist again. And Zeewolde may require further reflection.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of March 23, 2022
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