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Homes in London under threat as datacenters pull in all the power

Barrier to building homes in overcrowded city? An overdrawn electricity grid

Housing in London, western Europe's largest city, is famously in short supply, but it seems there is a new barrier to building more homes in England's capital – the electricity grid can't supply enough power and datacenters are being blamed for using up all the capacity.

According to the Financial Times, housing developers in West London were told by the Greater London Authority that it might take more than a decade to build out the capacity of the electricity grid, and there may have to be a moratorium on new housing projects until 2035. Three west London boroughs in particular were named – Hillingdon, Ealing and Hounslow.

The GLA states in its letter that the grid in that part of London is under acute pressure not just because of the demand for new homes, but because of the number of capacious bit barns that were constructed in the area in recent years.

The upshot of this is that new projects are now being rejected because the electricity network in the locale has hit capacity.

According to the FT, the GLA, the National Grid and local electric suppliers are working on a solution to unblock the development impasse, with options being considered said to include reviewing the needs of customers on a case-by-case basis and incentivizing electricity usage at low-demand times of day.

Datacenter operators have chosen to locate their infrastructure close to the transport links provided by the M4 highway corridor and also because of high-capacity fibre optic cable links that run alongside the major road, heading westwards towards the Atlantic and North America.

Colocation provider Virtus, for example, operates about five separate datacenters not far from London's Heathrow Airport, while Morgan Stanley and Sungard Availability Services also have their own facilities in the area, all merrily sucking up the megawatts.

The problem is that these bit barns use a lot of electricity, not just to power racks upon racks of servers, but also the rest of the infrastructure, such as the cooling system, to stop everything from overheating, plus the lighting and monitoring systems.

According to Digital Realty (which also has a datacenter at Heathrow Airport), as much as 3 percent of all electricity used in the world goes to powering datacenters, although other sources put this at closer to 1 percent. This amounts to over 416 terawatts, a greater amount than all the electricity used by the entire United Kingdom.

And it isn't just a problem in the UK – earlier this year, it was reported that datacenter power consumption in Ireland is now greater than the energy used by all the rural homes in the country put together.

The situation caused protests in Ireland late last year, with calls for a halt to the ongoing expansion of datacenter capacity in the country, with fears being expressed of blackouts happening because so much of Ireland's energy was being used to power datacenters.

In March, the Dutch Senate voted to make it impossible to implement the zoning plan for land meant to be used for a Meta datacenter until it can be sure the application by Facebook's parent doesn't conflict with public interest.

Protests over datacenters have also been happening elsewhere in the world, notably in Virginia in the US, which is believed to have had as many as 186 bit barns by 2019. Plans to build new datacenter buildings near the Manassas National Battlefield in Prince William County were met with resistance from some in the local community, while others are worried about datacenter developments pushing up land prices.

However, there were also protests in places such as Chandler and Mesa in Arizona over the amount of water as well as energy used by datacenters located there, with some authorities tightening the approvals process to try and discourage new builds. ®

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