Facebook parent Meta has shelved plans to build an unusually large datacentre in the Netherlands after a growing environmental campaign brought calls in the Dutch parliament for it to be scrapped.
The computing facility, billed to be one of the most environmentally friendly in the world, was being built to serve “metaverse” worlds to virtual reality headsets across Europe, and to carry communications over WhatsApp and Facebook. But with an expected energy consumption of 1380 gigawatt-hours per year, it would consume nearly half as much energy as all the other datacentres in the Netherlands, a country with one of the world’s largest datacentre industries.
Meta halted plans to build the datacentre after the Dutch parliament on Tuesday called for the government to do everything within its power to stop the facility being built, a spokesman for the company told Computer Weekly.
Parliamentarians voted to approve a motion tabled by a left-wing environmental party that the Meta datacentre should not be built until the government has clarified formally a list of specific places in the Netherlands where “hyperscale” datacentres are permissible.
The local government of Zeewolde had invited Meta to build a hyperscale datacentre in its district as part of an economic regeneration plan, in anticipation of it generating a minimum of $2.5m a year in tax income alone, said a spokeswoman for Zeewolde municipality. In the US, Facebook datacentres have boosted the national economy by $6.2bn a year, mostly as a consequence of datacentre construction, according to research commissioned by Meta.
The Netherlands coalition government, which had helped to persuade Meta to build in Zeewolde, argued in the Dutch Senate that reversing Meta’s Zeewolde datacentre deal would undermine the Netherlands’ credibility among, it implied, international investors. But the government failed to make an environmental and economic case for datacentres against opposition parties, which campaigned against Meta during recent local and national elections.
A spokeswoman for Zeewolde municipality said the debate about the datacentre had been one-sided. “All the negative issues are enlarged and the positive issues are not made,” she said. “The public knows hardly anything about the positive issues because I can’t get it published [in the media].”
The Dutch government, after coming to power with a coalition agreement that declared hyperscale datacentres consumed energy disproportionately larger than their economic benefit, answered a persistent campaign against it by declaring on 16 February a national moratorium on hyperscale datacentres while it formulated a national strategy to make sure such facilities were built only in places with enough energy and space to accommodate them. It put forward the strategy to help to settle protracted coalition negotiations last year.
Parliamentary pressure persisted, and though Zeewolde council approved the Meta datacentre plans in December, green MPs have continued to insist on the government halting its construction by exploiting a legal loophole that normally keeps central government out of local planning decisions.
Government assessors were due to announce their decision on whether the Meta development satisfied environmental conditions set by the government using that loophole, but it failed to placate campaigners.
In a statement conceding that it would halt construction of the datacentre on Tuesday, Meta said its main criterion when deciding where to put a datacentre was whether it was “a good fit” with the community. “We strongly believe in being good neighbours,” it added.
A party opposed to the Meta datacentre, and to house-building, recently came to power following local elections in Zeewolde, commanding a majority in the council chamber – a rare event in Dutch regional politics. Leefbaar Zeewolde leader Tom Zonneveld told the local press that although it might be hard to stop the datacentre’s construction now, he would fight it at every stage of the remaining process.
Meanwhile, campaigning MPs have challenged the assertion, written into Dutch economic and environmental policies, that datacentres are not only required for the digital transformation of the country’s old inefficient industries, but are one of its strengths internationally and therefore a pillar of economic policy.
But “large mega datacentres” do not have a place in the Netherlands’ economy of the future because they consume too much space and energy, said Christine Teunissen, author of the motion to halt Meta’s construction plan and a senior member of Dutch animal welfare party PvdD, when she tabled it in parliament in February. Another Teunissen motion, to make the government concede that economic growth should be curtailed for the sake of the environment, was rejected.
Zeewolde has long been earmarked as an ideal location for the overspill of datacentres and housing from central Amsterdam, where dwindling free space and energy infrastructure caused policy-makers to warn that the Netherlands could lose its place as, arguably, Europe’s premier data hub. Analysts concluded that Zeewolde had the space, power infrastructure and proximity to greater Amsterdam required by datacentres that needed the city’s fast internet connections to the rest of Europe.
National plans envisaged hyperscale datacentres being built in the northern and southern reaches of the Netherlands, where spacious old industrial areas had plentiful renewable energy from nearby wind and solar farms. Those areas – where Google and Microsoft have already built three hyperscale datacentres, with plans for expansion – were excluded from the moratorium the government called on further hyperscale datacentre construction in February.
Facebook was not prepared to say whether metaverse datacentres needed both scale and proximity to fast internet hubs like Amsterdam’s, although real-time network feeds of graphics typically require high speed and low latency.
Zeewolde, like Grongingen and Middenmeer, where Google and Microsoft located their big datacentres, had plans for wind farms that also made it an ideal place, in the eyes of town planners, to house datacentres. But while the Netherlands’ economic strategy celebrated the fact that 80% of energy consumed by its datacentre industry came from renewables, and hyperscale operators are renowned for investment in renewable energy, Dutch green parliamentarians branded it a problem because other industries might want to use that renewable capacity instead.
Tabling a motion approved by the Dutch Senate last week, again for the government to suspend construction of the Meta datacentre, Niko Koffeman, leader of the PvdD party, said the government needed to clarify what consequences it would have for the national supply of green energy.
Senators who backed his motion, primarily from left and green parties, said they did so even though it was legally dubious because the government did not actually have the power to intervene.