Frictions and imaginaries surrounding the energy requirements of digitialization

The aim of the project is to understand societal conflicts and new visions that arise as energy-intensive data infrastructure – particularly data centers - interconnect with energy grids undergoing transition. The project develops a novel perspective on the long-term governance and sustainable interrelation of digital and energy infrastructure in-transition. 

Digital services that use artificial intelligence and sensor data play an increasingly important role in the ongoing energy transition. But those services are run from data centers, a growing digital industry and infrastructure, which has been heavily criticized for their growing energy consumption, reliance on fossil fuels, and also because of their large-scale unsustainable water and land use that have activated old social antagonisms and inequalities in regions with fragile natural ecologies which are both promised economic development and risk to be left out 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 researchers will be studying frictions and visions that emerge in the process of making data centers more environmentally sustainable in a context of intensifying electrification and datafication of society. They will explore the dynamics that emerge in the interrelation of energy-intense data centers with energy grids powered with “green” electricity in a moment when these infrastructures are under pressure to support future low-carbon economies but are not built to handle a more electrified and digitalized society. 

The project is exploring conflicts and imaginaries of sustainability in four arenas in which data infrastructure and power grids come together:

  • The arena where data and energy infrastructures physically interconnect. Here the project team will focus on municipalities and regions where conflicts around local electricity and grid capacity shortages occur, the forms of resistance that emerge in anticipation or in result of these interconnections, and the creative solutions are emerging to handle these conflicts.
  • Municipalities and regions in Sweden where the data center industry’s needs for low-carbon power have resulted in the construction of new energy infrastructure, such as wind farms.
  • Ongoing standardization initiatives and new metrics intended to define what counts as a “sustainable” data center and digital facility.
  • Sociotechnican experiments with new forms of organizing the relationship between data centers and energy infrastructure by, for example, distributed “edge” computing or where data centers contribute energy to power grids and heating networks.

A number of cases from Sweden and northern Europe are being studied in each arena using qualitative methods including interviews with decision makers, energy companies and power grid operators, data center operators and professional data organizations, researchers, designers and citizens. 

The project mobilizes an interdisciplinary approach founded in and integrating scholarly competences from media infrastructure studies, anthropology, energy transition studies and information systems and design. 

“Megabytes vs. Megawatts: Understanding infrastructural frictions between data centers and energy grids for sustainable digitization”

Principal investigator:
Julia Velkova

Linköping University
Ulf Melin
Johanna Sefyrin
Harald Rohracher

Linköping University

SEK 5.7 million