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Regulating Data Centers

Magazine #3 | Autumn 2023

Regulating Data Centers

In 2020, data centers in Germany consumed a total of 16 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. That is the equivalent of around 3 percent of Germany’s total energy consumption. The waste heat generated by the data centers still goes largely unused, despite the fact that it could contribute significantly to reducing CO2 emissions in the heat supply.

To improve this less-than-ideal situation, the German government intends to introduce a law that will require more efficient use of energy in data centers. But relative to the promises made by the three parties in Germany’s current coalition government, the plan has been significantly watered down. By 2030, electricity consumption for cooling, energy distribution and energy storage in data centers must account for no more than 30 percent of the electricity required for the actual computing power. This target, however, is usually achieved in large data centers anyway. In addition, the draft law does not provide for sanctions if the requirements are not met.

Only the very largest data centers are affected by the law (probably fewer than 1 percent of all those in Germany), and the requirements for waste heat utilization (such as mandatory feed-in to heat grids) are lax. As proposed, the current draft legislation fails to take into account the approximately 40,000 smaller German data centers. Yet they, too, produce waste heat that could be used for heating. The federal government is also failing to promote needed resource-conserving designs for data centers that go beyond mere energy consumption.

The claim can often be heard that setting overly ambitious efficiency requirements creates a competitive disadvantage. But that seems unlikely. Other countries, like France, have also enacted a legal obligation to publish the environmental impact of digital services and data centers. The French law aims to raise awareness of the environmental impact of digital technologies by requiring regular disclosure of key environmental impact indicators throughout the life cycle, such as CO2 emissions or energy and water consumption.

Since data center infrastructures cannot be changed overnight, our society will have to live with unsustainable infrastructures for decades to come. As such, we need legislative proposals that – in contrast to the one put forward by the German government – really put digitization in Germany on a more sustainable path.