Data centers have caused skyrocketing power demand in parts of London. Now, new housing construction could be banned for more than a decade in some neighborhoods of the UK’s biggest city because the electricity grid is reaching capacity, as first reported on by the Financial Times. The reason: too many data centers are taking up too much electricity and hogging available fiber optic cables.
The Financial Times obtained multiple letters sent 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 one note, according to the news outlet.
The GLA also confirmed the grid issue to Gizmodo in an email, and sent along text from one of the letters, which noted that for some areas utilities are saying “electricity connections will not be available for their sites until 2027 to 2030.” Though the Financial Times reported that at least one letter indicated making the necessary electric grid updates in London could take up until 2035.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the London Mayor told Gizmodo:
The Mayor is very concerned that electricity capacity constraints in three West London boroughs are creating a significant challenge for developers securing timely connections to the electricity network, which could affect the delivery of thousands of much-needed homes...The increased demand for electricity capacity in the area is believed to be largely due to a rapid influx of batteries and data centres.
Multiple data centers have been built in and around west London in recent years, 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,” one of the GLA letters seen by the Financial Times reportedly said.
And the London government isn’t 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 centers—huge conglomerations of servers, computers, and telecom systems that keep the online, on. Running, cooling, and maintaining each of these centers uses tons of electricity—the world’s largest data centers require the same amount of power as about 80,000 U.S. households.
The development delays in London are reportedly most severely impacting 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 centers 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 centers 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 centers will be able to manage our new climate normal.
Update 7/28/2022, 12:58 p.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional comment from the Greater London Authority.