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Big Tech’s Energy Needs Are Growing So Fast That Power Grids Can’t Keep Up

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This story was originally published by Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Big Tech’s appetite for energy is just about visible from the east coast of Scotland. Some 12 miles out to sea sits a wind farm, where each of the 60 giant turbines has blades roughly the length of an American football field. The utility companies behind the Moray West project had promised the site would be capable of generating enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes once completed. That was before Amazon stepped in.

In January, Amazon announced it had struck a deal to claim more than half the site’s 880 megawatts of output, part of its ongoing attempt to slake its unquenchable thirst for power. As the world’s biggest companies race to build the infrastructure necessary to enable artificial intelligence, even remote Scottish wind farms are becoming indispensable.

In Europe last year, $79.4 million was spent on new data center projects, according to research firm Global Data. Already in 2024, there are signs that demand is accelerating. Today Microsoft announced a $3.2 billion bet on Sweden data centers. Earlier this year, the company also said it would double its data center footprint in Germany, while also pledging a $4.3 billion data center investment for AI infrastructure in France. Amazon announced a network of data centers in the state of Brandenburg as part of a $8.5 billion investment in Germany, later dedicating another $17.1 billion to Spain. Google said it would spend $1.1 billion on its data center in Finland to drive AI growth.

“There is a recognition that as power demand increases, the industry will have to find alternative energy sources.”

As the tech giants rush to build more data centers, behind the scenes there is panic around how to power them. MicrosoftMeta and Google all plan to be net zero before 2030, while logistics-heavy Amazon has targeted 2040. In pursuit of that aim, the past decade has seen those companies hoover up renewable energy contracts with wind or solar companies. But all these projects rely on electricity grids, which are buckling under increased demand for clean energy. That’s forcing the tech giants to think about their energy-intensive futures and consider how they might operate their own off-grid power empires, outside the system.

“There is a recognition that as power demand increases, the industry will have to find alternative energy sources,” says Colm Shorten, senior director of data center strategy at real estate services company JLL, explaining that server farms are increasingly looking for “behind-the-wire” power supply, whether that’s gas or diesel generators or more innovative technology such as green hydrogen.

Data centers need power for two primary purposes. The first is to power the chips that enable computers to run algorithms or power video games. The second is to cool the servers, to stop them from overheating and cutting out. Initiatives such as using liquid to cool the chips instead of air are expected to make modest energy savings. But forecasts still expect data centers’ demand for power to as much as double by 2026, according to the International Energy Association, thanks in part to the demands of artificial intelligence.

For the past five years, tech companies have been on an increasingly frenzied shopping spree for renewable contracts known as power purchase agreements (PPAs), which can enable data center operators to reserve power from a wind farm or solar site before the projects have even been built. In Denmark, there are solar farms paid for by Meta. In Norway, there are wind farms bankrolled by Google. As early adopters of these types of deals, tech companies have helped fuel Europe’s now-thriving PPA market, says Christoph Zipf, spokesperson at WindEurope. This month, Microsoft struck the world’s biggest renewables energy deal, signing a $10 billion contract for clean power across Europe and the US.

Yet renewables still need to run through the electricity grid, which is becoming a bottleneck—especially in Europe, as a surge of renewable producers try to connect to feed green transition demand across a multitude of sectors. “We’re going to run into energy constraints,” Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicted on a podcast in April. At Davos this year, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman also warned that the status quo was not going to be able to provide AI with the power it needed to advance. “There’s no way to get there without a breakthrough,” he said at a Bloomberg event.

Grid operators are essentially saying the same thing. Ireland’s state-owned electricity provider Eirgrid cited grid problems when it imposed an effective moratorium on Dublin data centers two years ago. When the municipality of Amsterdam introduced a similar pause, the Dutch Data Center Association, an industry group, hit back. “The current grid congestion in North Holland is blocking the growth of the data center sector,” it said in a statement.

In the search for space on the grid, data centers are being pushed into parts of Europe where their arrival is more conspicuous, risking backlash from the smaller communities when they show up. That trend is already visible in Germany, according to Simon Hinterholzer, researcher at Germany’s Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability. “In the past, the large majority of new data centers were being built in Frankfurt,” he says. “This has completely changed in the last two or three years.” He points to a 300-megawatt data center being built in the small town of Wustermark, as well as Amazon’s latest investment into Brandenburg, the region bordering Berlin where more than 70 turbines were installed last year.

To cope long-term, there are more calls for data centers to find ways to survive off-grid. “The size of AI projects are getting bigger and bigger, reaching up to 1 gigawatt of power, which cannot be supplied by the traditional power grids,” says Ricardo Abad, founder of data center Quark, which is working on a new site with an unnamed partner in Spain that will be able to generate its own power through on-site solar and wind power. These types of on-site projects are technically still connected to the grid—in case they want to offload excess power—but they have the ability to operate independently, he says.

In the US, Microsoft has already been experimenting with hydrogen fuel cells, touting them as a form of emission-free power back-up.

The same year Dublin announced restrictions on data centers, Amazon also opened its largest-ever on-site solar farm, spanning the roof and car park of its fulfillment center in Seville, Spain. Google’s head of data center location strategy in Europe has also expressed interest in on-site renewables for its next generation of server farms. Microsoft and Meta denied running any projects that are entirely off-grid. But in Dublin, Microsoft is building a data center alongside its own backup gas power plant, meaning the site can keep running even if the grid operator kicks it off.

But Big Tech is really in search of clean energy ideas—even if those ideas are still in their very early stages. “In the future, technologies like advanced nuclear reactors, renewable energy sources, and energy storage solutions will be crucial in making this possible,” says Kilian Wagner, an expert in sustainable digital infrastructures at German digital association Bitkom. OpenAI’s Altman is already an investor in Helion Energy, an American nuclear fusion company that has also agreed to provide Microsoft with 50 megawatts of electricity from its first fusion nuclear plant, once operational. In the US, Microsoft has already been experimenting with hydrogen fuel cells, touting them as a form of emission-free power back-up.

What server farms going off-grid would mean for the rest of us is unclear. By going it alone, Big Tech firms could strike gold in their search for the clean energy source of the future. Until they figure it out, they’re stuck with the grid.

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michelslm
2 days ago
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Lucid CEO says its Air has hit efficiency of 5 miles per kWh and ‘no one else is even close’

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During a recent webcast at the annual Evercore ISI Global Clean Energy & Transitions Summit, Lucid Motors CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson shared some exciting news about the automaker and electric mobility in general. Earlier this week, a version of its flagship Lucid Air sedan delivered an efficiency ratio of 5 miles per kWh, which could soon translate to more affordable long-range models for all.

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michelslm
2 days ago
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Toyota, Japanese rivals promise more efficient next-gen ICE engines amid the shift to EVs

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Despite the market moving toward EVs, Toyota, Subaru, and Mazda are committed to developing next-generation ICE engines. The new engines are “tailored to electrification” with integrated EV components.

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michelslm
21 days ago
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The digital revolution has failed

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The digital revolution has failed

The internet emerged from the defense research establishment, but as it was breaking out of those constraints in the 1990s to be unleashed onto the wider world, it had to be given a new story — and libertarian capitalists wrote it. Picking up on the melding of libertarianism, technological optimism, and neoliberal economics over the previous couple decades, they deployed a narrative that changed the way we thought about the emerging network and laid the groundwork for the commercial opportunity that followed its privatization in 1995.

The following year, Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder John Perry Barlow released a manifesto from the World Economic Forum in Davos — a fact that should’ve immediately set off alarm bells — that became a defining narrative for the era. Cyberspace was to be a virgin frontier, divorced from the realities of the material world it depended on, where people would interact with each other as equals, free from the burdens of race, sex, or wealth, and it was those users who would construct it free from the dictates of the big, bad government. The new virtual world was to be “an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions,” he wrote.

Those utopian libertarian visions may have been relatively easy to believe in the web’s more anarchic years, where even though companies were having cash shoveled at them as investors and founders sought to cash in on that new frontier, it was still easy for people to spin up their own websites and stake a claim, so to speak, beyond the growing digital towns of the nascent tech capitalists. But as the boom went bust with the turn of the new millennium and the companies that remained sought to solidify their positions, the enclosure of the digital commons became a far greater priority.

While Barlow had plenty of scorn to heap on governments, he didn’t have the same disdain for corporations that saw the cyberspace he proclaimed as a libertarian paradise to be a great means to make a lot of money — something that should’ve been clear from the site where he made his so-called declaration of independence. As the investment flooded in, lawmakers prioritized the economic value (and geopolitical power) that could be wrung from the internet, while new media like Wired Magazine sprang up to advocate for the new industry. The public was kept at the center of the narrative, but in reality the wider benefits became a lesser concern as long as the money kept flowing.

Early benefits of the internet age

While greater commercialization brought more drawbacks to virtual life, there can be no denying that there were clear benefits to be had from the global connection the internet enabled. Suddenly the information of the world was at users’ fingertips, and communities on virtually any subject could easily be sought out as the network of websites, chat rooms, and forums kept expanding. While there was some technical skill needed for certain forms of engagement, it wasn’t so hard to customize your own web page to represent your identity to fellow netizens and participate alongside everyone else.

Even as the enclosure into platforms sped up in the 2000s (and certainly annoyed the more tech-savvy early adopters), it wasn’t entirely bad: the simplicity that came with platformization made it much easier for billions more people to get online and start finding reasons to keep coming back, especially since the commercialization was still at an early stage and had done little to compromise the user experience.

For a time, everything seemed to be heading in the right direction: internet access expanded and speeds increased, our access to it moved from the desk into our pockets, whatever information we sought would be served up in milliseconds, high-quality entertainment was easily accessible without advertising at an affordable price — if it cost anything at all — and you never had to lose touch with anyone. When things seemed to be going well, it was easier to overlook the occasional stories that should’ve been a warning for what was to come.

The erosion of the web’s promise

We now look back on those times as the good old days, before the ambitions of tech companies vastly expanded and the pressure for profit accelerated the degradation of what they’d built. Our relationship with the tech industry has changed and the broad consensus on its impact on the world has been souring for years as the benefits of the digital revolution slowed while the drawbacks began to escalate through the 2010s as greed became too strong a force to contain.

These days the finger is often pointed to Facebook as the standard bearer of the turn against tech, but Google seems far more illustrative. It began as a university research project where creators Sergey Brin and Larry Page openly acknowledged how advertising would compromise the search engine’s quality. But once they spun it out as a private company and later listed on public markets, Google began its slow slide toward what it is today: embracing advertising paired with a “Don’t Be Evil” slogan that would eventually be abandoned as the pressure to keep growing the ad profits increased. Now when you turn to it for the information it claims to deliver, you’re more likely to get a bunch of listicles optimized for its search algorithms that are stuffed with affiliate links and terrible ads, if not just a bunch of AI-generated trash.

And Google’s not the only one. Facebook has never been a darling, but any commitment to promoting positive engagement among users went out the window ages ago with the need to juice ad profits, even if that meant spreading right-wing extremism and false information, abetting genocide, and even blocking the spread of real news if it meant having to share a pittance of its massive profits with struggling publishers. The greed of those two companies has sent news media spiraling, with lower ad revenue leading to successive layoffs that reduce the quality of the journalism they publish while their websites are stuffed with poor quality ads if not locked behind a paywall altogether.

Meanwhile, the promise of streaming entertainment has turned into a nightmare after corporate consolidation and the sidelining of competition. Subscription prices keep going higher, ads are increasingly part of the deal, and the old promise of unlimited access is gone as they keep yanking down programming for tax breaks and cost savings. Ecommerce hasn’t been spared either. Amazon feels like it’s taken over, but in the meantime it pulled back from being the main seller to turn itself into a poorly governed marketplace where deceptively presented low-quality goods proliferate and everyone has to pay more to pad the company’s bottom line. Don’t even get me started on the trends Shein and Temu are pioneering.

Generative AI closes off a better future
Ursula Le Guin said we must be able to imagine freedom. AI traps us in the past.
The digital revolution has failed

But it doesn’t end there. As tech companies sought to escape the confines of the web and move into the wider world, they’ve left a trail of disaster in their wake. The gig economy pretended app-based mediation was worthy of tearing hard-won workers’ rights to shreds, while data-hungry companies stuck surveillance devices anywhere they could get away with. The promise of algorithmic efficiency caused discriminatory systems to proliferate through society with little consideration for the wider repercussions. The effort to route as many interactions as possible through apps and make our smartphones as addictive as possible has spawned an epidemic of loneliness and even social disconnection.

Add to all that how the effort to stick screens, connectivity, and voice commands in as many places as possible has not only created a steady wave of devices that quickly become e-waste, but a wider problem where our appliances don’t last nearly as long in part because that tech fails so easily and our cars are less safe because key functions were shifted onto large touchscreens in anticipation of a driverless revolution that never arrived. And just as those issues were piling up, generative AI arrived on scene to make it even worse.

Enter the AI-generated swamp

The models behind the chatbots and visual generators that have taken the tech industry by storm over the past year were made by ingesting as much data as these companies could capture online as possible. That included whatever images and text they could find, including copyrighted books, works of art, news articles, and even the user-generated content and data billions of people have been spreading across the web for the past three decades. They took that collectively produced trove of information and communication as the foundation of their own businesses.

The tools they unleashed onto the world have only accelerated the trajectory of the web, filling social media feeds with AI-generated videos and text (some of it even produced by artificial users), tempting declining news media to try to pass AI-generated stories off as real, and worsening the quality of Google search results with the new wave of AI-generated garbage taking the web by storm. There’s a conspiracy theory that the web is effectively dead, and made up primarily of bots and generated content. While that may not already be true, the AI companies seem determined to make it a reality.

If you listen to CEOs like Sam Altman or venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen, they want us to believe that these tools are the beginning of a vast expansion in human potential, but that’s incredibly hard to believe for anyone who knows the history of Silicon Valley’s deception and can see through the hype to understand how these tools actually work. They’re not intelligent or prescient; they’re just churning out synthetic material that aligns with all the connections they’ve made between the training data they pulled from the open web.

Once again, the push to adopt these AI technologies isn’t about making our lives better, it’s about reducing the cost of producing ever more content to keep people engaged, to serve ads against, and keep people subscribed to struggling streaming services. The public doesn’t want the quality of news, entertainment, and human interactions to further decline because of the demands of investors for even greater profits, but that doesn’t matter. Everything must be sacrificed on the altar of tech capitalism.

AI is fueling a data center boom. It must be stopped.
Silicon Valley believes more computation is essential for progress. But they ignore the resource burden and don’t care if the benefits materialize.
The digital revolution has failed

Probably the most perverse aspect of it all is that making all of that (often quite poor quality) synthetic media has such an enormous cost. On the one hand you have the labor impact, where the people doing some of the jobs we’d most want done by fellow humans and maybe even to have more people engaging in — the creative work of writing and art that enriches human society — are the first to be targeted by people who seem most divorced from the human condition. But then layer on top of that the energy, water, and mineral cost of running all the data centers behind those tools, along with Altman’s comments about the potential need for geoengineering to make his dystopian future a reality, and it shows how little the proliferation of AI tools has to offer us.

Another internet is possible

There can only be one conclusion from all of this: the digital revolution has failed. The initial promise was a deception to lay the foundation for another corporate value-creation scheme, but the benefits that emerged from it have been so deeply eroded by commercial imperatives that the drawbacks far outweigh the remaining redeeming qualities — and that only gets worse with every day generative AI tools are allowed to keep flooding the web with synthetic material.

The time for tinkering around the edges has passed, and like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the only hope to be found today is in seeking to tear down the edifice the tech industry has erected and to build new foundations for a different kind of internet that isn’t poisoned by the requirement to produce obscene and ever-increasing profits to fill the overflowing coffers of a narrow segment of the population.

There were many networks before the internet, and there can be new networks that follow it. We don’t have to be locked into the digital dystopia Silicon Valley has created in a network where there was once so much hope for something else entirely. The ongoing erosion already seems to be sending people fleeing by ditching smartphones (or at least trying to reduce how much they use them), pulling back from the mess that social media has become, and ditching the algorithmic soup of streaming services.

Personal rejection is a welcome development, but as the web declines, we need to consider what a better alternative could look like and the political project it would fit within. We also can’t fall for any attempt to cast a libertarian “declaration of independence” as a truly liberatory future for everyone.

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michelslm
101 days ago
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Did Genesis just leak the new all-electric GV60 design?

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The all-electric Genesis GV60 is due for an upgrade. In a video announcing new brand ambassador Jack Ickx, the updated Genesis GV60 design appears to have leaked in the background.

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michelslm
131 days ago
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Tesla delays another pay adjustment as employees are unhappy with the last bump

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Tesla told employees today that it will do another pay adjustment, a second in a few weeks, after employees expressed disappointment with the last one.

But the automaker has now delayed the second pay increase, which is happening amid the CEO, Elon Musk, asking for a historic compensation package.

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michelslm
150 days ago
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