updated: 25-11-2020 | 22:38
Opposition to data centers that massively buy up Dutch green electricity is increasing in the Netherlands. "As if Microsoft is ruling the country."
When council member Lars Ruiter was driving his small gray Hyundai on the A7 near the Dutch town of Medemblik in mid-November, he suddenly saw the excavators. Was a data center built there on the west side of the highway, without the permit having been issued? And that meadow next door, where a large parking lot was paved? The zoning plan had not yet been changed by the city council, he knew. It was farmland. His grandfather grew potatoes in those fields - he had sat on his tractor as a boy.
Curious, Ruiter took the exit.
He did not get far. At the gate he was told by a group of British construction workers that he had no business there. “But when I said, I'm a councilor of the municipality, they received me in the site hut anyway. It was all for Microsoft, they said. ”
The energetic Ruiter, at 24 years the second-youngest councilor of the Noord-Holland municipality of Hollands Kroon is critical of the arrival of even more hyperscalers to the municipality. There are already two of them: from Google and Microsoft. The latter alone takes half of the electricity from the recently opened Prinses Ariane Windpark - the largest in the Netherlands. And that's just the beginning.
If it is up to the city council, five huge complexes will be added. The surface area of the data centers will grow from 60 to 230 hectares in the coming years, according to a recent memo from the council. A fourfold increase - despite the recent stream of protests.
Before the summer there was not much resistance when Dutch Newspaper NRC published about the data centers of Google and Microsoft that bought the green electricity. But a few months later, partly thanks to a broadcast of the popular Dutch TV Show 'Sunday with Lubach', the mood completely changed.
Critical publications appear almost daily in the local media. Agricultural organization LTO is actively campaigning against new data centers, which are pushing up land prices. A petition against more hyperscalers (“which are at the expense of living, working and living enjoyment”) has now been signed almost two thousand times. There is a activist group 'Save de Wieringermeer' and a activist group 'Data non grata'.
The data centers are also in the spotlight nationally, due to their reliance on scarce space and green electricity. This to the dismay of the responsible minister Eric Wiebes (Economic Affairs and Climate), who considers spatial planning and sustainable energy to be a task for lower authorities. "I don't plan data centers, that's what the region is all about," Wiebes said on Dutch television.
“Until a few months ago, I was laughed at when I talked about data centers in Parliament,” says Member of Parliament Sandra Beckerman. Wiebes did not get further than the remark that I was also often on 'my electronic media'. But I really know what I'm talking about. As a Member of Parliament in Groningen, I saw how mysterious people were about the arrival of a huge Google data center in Eemshaven. And how drastic that was for farmers, for energy demand and local politics ”
In the meantime, the mood in Parliament changed. Mid-October, the House of Representatives suddenly passed a motion ordering an investigation into the power consumption of existing and newly planned data centers.
Such a national overview does not exist now, despite the enormous electricity consumption of the American internet giants who run their cloud services and sites here. In ten years' time they are expected to consume 3.5 terawatt hours per year in the Wieringermeerpolder alone, almost 3 percent of the current consumption of the whole of the Netherlands, according to research bureau CE Delft. And in the Flevopolder, a secret developer wants to build a hyperscale that will use almost 1.4 terawatt hours of electricity, the same amount as more than eighty large wind turbines.
A memo from the city of Zeewolde, the responsible municipality, states that it would be logical for the government to get involved in the data center issue, because of the preference of multinationals for Dutch green electricity. "The Netherlands is a good location for foreign investors because of the large supply of sustainable green energy," notes the municipality, which also knows that it must be generated somewhere. But: "This item belongs in the national discussion about the use of green electricity by foreign investors and not specifically for this project."
That's what it says on paper. But in practice, the board in Zeewolde is working hard to arrange all the necessary permits itself, just like in Hollands Kroon.
Should the Wieringermeerpolder become a data center city, or is reflection in place, Councilman Lars Ruiter (then) wondered aloud in a submitted document that appeared on 3 October in the Noordhollands Dagblad. Not a crazy question, he thought.
But the article set off his party members. He was immediately called to the floor of the group chairman and alderman Theo Meskers - who had once himself flown to Microsoft's headquarters in Seattle to lure the first data center. “He told me I had ruined the party brand. I had to withdraw my piece in the newspaper, otherwise I would be expelled from the group. ”
He refused, and now he continues as 'Group Ruiter'.
Jeff Leever, councilor for Seniors Hollands Kroon coalition party, has also just left his group. Together with a fellow councilor, he submitted critical questions about data centers and, like Ruiter, was immediately dismissed by his councilor. "It looks like Belarus here," he grumbles on the phone. “As a councilor I just have to be able to check the college. The Trias politica is under discussion here. ” Leever does not understand the desire for far-reaching industrialization of the polder. "It's so ugly, this is landscape mutilation."
It is actually really strange that the municipality is dealing with these kinds of large decisions, according to potato farmer Henk Geerligs, vice-chairman of the local department of agriculture organization LTO; “This is the most fertile soil in the Netherlands. Here you can still farm profitably.”
Geerligs was commissioned by LTO to consider whether the municipality is the competent authority when it comes to data centers. No, he concluded after a lot of research and legal advice. According to him, the province is dealing with environmental permits for heavy industrial complexes.
The confusion revolves around the status of emergency generators - large diesel installations that keep servers running in the event of a power outage. These aggregates are so heavy that the data center is an "IPPC installation" according to LTO, for which the province is responsible.
Hollands Kroon, who previously issued the licenses to Microsoft and Google itself, considers itself the competent authority. A data center is not an "IPPC installation", the municipality says when asked, because the emergency generators are never switched on and the Dutch power grid is very reliable. But a spokesman for the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment refuted that claim. Emergency generators do count. “I also checked with our lawyer. It doesn't matter that they are never switched on.
This means the paperwork for the data center that Microsoft has already started building must be submitted again, this time at the provincial government. That will cause major delays.
'No comment. Please call HQ'
Microsoft is not willing to wait. Right between two building plots is a stretch of road that is still open to the public. From there, the huge site is clearly visible, as is the brand new parking lot on plot B1. "This is a construction site, you have no access here," says one of the British when reporters want to look at the sign. "Call the London headquarters."