As the crow flies, Microsoft’s headquarters is 7,770 kilometers away. Yet they closely follow local politics in North Holland in Redmond, Washington.
Due to the opposition to the new mega data centers in North Holland, Microsoft’s planned expansion has been delayed for more than a year. That costs the company millions a month, says Noelle Wash. She is about the cloud infrastructure of the American tech company.
For most users, the cloud is an elusive, ubiquitous computer. The Wieringermeer is home to the factories that keep this digital world going. They are called ‘Hyperscalers’: huge Microsoft and Google data centers, tens of hectares in size. They consume a lot of green electricity and the nearby wind farm and the enormous buildings are changing the landscape drastically. Hyperscalers are expensive, costing hundreds of millions to build, says Walsh.
Last year, Microsoft had to stop the construction of two new data centers in North Holland, because the permits were not in order. Last month, the tech company received permission to start again before the final permit is received. Next week the shovel will be put in the ground again at the village of Middenmeer, part of the municipality of Hollands Kroon.
Microsoft had to wait because Hollands Kroon and the province of Noord-Holland came into conflict with each other about the permits. For a company with an annual turnover of 168 billion dollars (144 billion euros), a few million euros in damage is not a big loss.
Also read: Data centers in the Netherlands have started to use 66 percent more power
Yet at Microsoft, they find the delay “frustrating,” said Noelle Walsh during an interview via Teams – Microsoft’s own online meeting program. “As long as construction doesn’t start, we have to continue paying the contractors. But it mainly costs us turnover because we have to say no to customers who like to store their data in the Netherlands. Since the pandemic, companies are moving to the cloud even faster.”
Why do those large Microsoft data centers have to be located in the Netherlands?
“We are expanding all over Europe, but the Netherlands is one of the three, along with Ireland and Sweden.” hero regions, countries with extra large data centers. Many of our customers simply want to be close to Amsterdam – and the Netherlands has a good network infrastructure. Electricity is not necessarily cheaper here than in Sweden, for example. But there is a lot of sustainable energy and the Dutch weather is favourable. Here we can cool the computers with air for a large part of the year.”
Can the growth of Microsoft’s cloud be realized with sustainable energy that is generated locally? Most of the power from wind farms already goes to data centers.
“There will be natural limits to which we have to adapt. For example, we can’t go from 1 to 2 gigawatts and assume that this is immediately available.
“That is one of the reasons that we are also expanding to other regions. This does not mean, however, that the pressure on the Dutch market is diminishing. The cloud is growing so fast that we have a fourth’heroregion” in Europe. A country that has enough space and sustainable energy, and we first want to coordinate it with local residents. I don’t want to force anything anymore.”
Do you have the idea that Microsoft is forcing the expansion in the Netherlands?
“I hope not. I was here in Middenmeer last summer to check out the location. We love generators and buildings. But if you are used to meadows and trees, then I understand that such a building hurts your eyes. We now want our data centers to blend in more with the landscape. I would rather have done that sooner rather than wait for people to comment on it.”
So a different color. What else has Microsoft learned from the resistance in North Holland?
“In the world of data centers, secrecy is often done for security reasons. We prefer not to say where we are. But that makes people suspicious. As Microsoft, we need to be more open about that. That’s why we organize community development team next week also an evening for local residents. We want to inform people why we are building, what it will look like and hear their feedback. We explain what happens in the data center, how many people work there and where the construction crews come from. We have nothing to hide.”
Does the Microsoft board see the Dutch as whiners?
“Sometimes. But we now realize that not everyone in Europe immediately knows what kind of a company Microsoft is. We want to grow, but only in the ‘Microsoft way’. We have to earn that trust first.”
“That’s why we try to gauge where the community is interested, we have a small fund for sustainability projects (it concerns 1.1 million euros since 2018, ed.) and we provide local IT training. Those people may be able to work at Microsoft later. We want to be good neighbors. That is the best in the long term, also for our turnover. We can’t assume everyone thinks we’re great.”
‘We shouldn’t have been so secretive’
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