Project: Megabytes vs Megawatts: Understanding Infrastructural Frictions between Data Centers and Energy Grids for Sustainable Digitalization (2023 – 2025)
Funded by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Fund, 5 700 000 SEK
Research team: Julia Velkova (PI), Flora Mary Bartlett, Laura Watts, Harald Rohracher, Johanna Sefyrin, Ulf Melin

In 2013, the social media tech giant Facebook inaugurated its first European data center in Luleå, Sweden as part the company’s efforts to make its data infrastructure more
environmentally sustainable and power it with renewable energy produced in the North. Following Facebook, other digital tech corporations such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft
have followed suit and built increasingly larger data centers in Northern Europe. Today, their size is no longer measured in megabytes of data that they store and process, but in megawatts of electricity and heat that they consume and respectively emit in the places where they connect to energy grids. The amount of energy needed by these infrastructures of a
digitalized economy and society is of a magnitude which increasingly affects the operation of national electricity grids and competes with other forms of energy demand in society. It is
increasingly putting strain on the capacity of energy infrastructures, crowding out competing industries, raising conflicts around the fair distribution and access to energy for local communities and bringing up questions about who loses and who benefits from data infrastructures. Data centres are additionally associated with local conflicts over environmentally unsustainable water and land use, and have activated old social antagonisms and inequalities in regions with fragile natural ecologies which are both promised economic development and risk to be leftout of it. At the same time, new visions in society proliferate about the role data centers can play as part of the future decarbonization of cities, e.g. by using the waste heat of data centers for district heating in European capitals including Stockholm, Helsinki, Amsterdam or London. However, these visions hardly solve the above-mentioned tensions, but in turn often create new ones, e.g. between infrastructures for the use of waste heat and the short lifespan and potential quick obsolescence of data centers as these infrastructures are also getting increasingly more mobile and distributed.

The project studies how do diverse actors in society imagine and enact the sustainable integration of data- and energy infrastructures, and how do they negotiate frictions that emerge in different arenas of their interrelation. The novelty of the project lies in mobilizing an interdisciplinary approach to this question that integrates scholarly competences from media infrastructure studies, energy transition studies and information systems and design, through which it develops a new perspective on the sustainability of digital technologies by focusing on the long-term governance and sustainable interrelation of digital and energy systems in-transition.

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