Too Many Servers Could Mean No New Homes in Parts of the UK

Too Many Servers Could Mean No New Homes in Parts of the UK

Data centres have caused skyrocketing power demand in parts of London. Now, new housing construction could be banned for a full decade in some neighbourhoods of the UK’s biggest city because the electricity grid is reaching capacity, according to a report from the Financial Times. The reason: too many data centres taking up electricity and fibre optic cables.

The news outlet obtained a letter from the city’s government, the Greater London Authority (GLA), to developers. “Major new applicants to the distribution network . . . including housing developments, commercial premises and industrial activities will have to wait several years to receive new electricity connections,” said the note, according to the Financial Times. The GLA did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

Multiple data centres have been built in and around west London in recent years, wrote the GLA, particularly along the M4 corridor, which is a major tech hub. Microsoft, Oracle, Amazon, HP, Sony, Dell, Huawei, and others all have campuses along the stretch of highway. “Data centres use large quantities of electricity, the equivalent of towns or small cities, to power servers and ensure resilience in service,” the letter reportedly noted.

And they’re not wrong. Everything you do on the internet has to be stored and processed somewhere. Information doesn’t come free, and scrolling, posting, and clicking all require data centres — huge conglomerations of servers, computers, and telecom systems that keep the online, on. Running, cooling, and maintaining each of these centres uses tons of electricity — the world’s largest data centres require the same amount of power as about 80,000 U.S. households.

Making the necessary electric grid updates in London could take up until 2035. The development delays are reportedly most severely affecting three boroughs in the west part of the city: Hillingdon, Ealing, and Hounslow.

From the Financial Times:

Developers are “still getting their heads round this, but our basic understanding is that developments of 25 units or more will be affected. Our understanding is that you just can’t build them,” said David O’Leary, policy director at the Home Builders Federation, a trade body.

Combined, those sections of London contain about 5,000 homes and make up about 11% of the city’s housing supply, according the Financial Times. London is in the grips of a major housing crisis. The city government has pledged to tackle the problem, in part, by building more homes — but these power infrastructure limitations could make that promise impossible.

Other places have been facing similar grid and power supply problems, with the expansion of big tech. The proliferation of data centres has been stressing Ireland’s electric grid in recent years. Back across the pond, cryptocurrency mining has been taxing the Texas grid, especially when high temperatures hit.

And between climate change and continued tech growth, things will likely only become more challenging. Europe’s recent heatwave made London’s data centres additionally demanding last week, when hot weather led to server failures at Oracle and Google. Even a massive amount of London’s available electricity isn’t enough to guarantee the UK’s data centres will be able to manage our new climate normal.