In a small Dutch town, a fight with Meta over a massive data center

The view from the farm stables of Hilde and Leon de Geus, who live close to the field where Facebook's parent company, Meta, wanted to build a data center in Zeewolde, the Netherlands, on May 21, 2022.
The view from the farm stables of Hilde and Leon de Geus, who live close to the field where Facebook's parent company, Meta, wanted to build a data center in Zeewolde, the Netherlands, on May 21, 2022. (Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The Washington Post)
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correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Dutch parliament voted to subject the planned Meta data center to a government environmental review by 13 to 4, and incorrectly described Christine Teunissen as a senator. The vote was 82 to 68, and Teunissen is a member of parliament. The story also originally stated that the data center will consume at least 1.3 terawatts of electrical power per year. That should have read 1.38 terawatt-hours per year. The story also compared the size of the farmland on which the data center would be built to 245 U.S. football fields; the size is closer to 310 football fields. The story has been corrected.

AMSTERDAM — In December, over the objections of many locals, the Dutch farming community of Zeewolde approved an enormous data center for Meta, the Silicon Valley parent of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The data center, to be built on farmland spanning the length of 245 U.S. football fields, was to be powered completely by clean energy, part of the Netherlands’ pitch as a nation that it can help support Europe’s computing needs while also protecting the environment.

But the project’s persistent opponents have managed to oust the sitting local government, spur some national lawmakers to push for curbing data centers and prompt the tech giant to postpone its plans — for now.

The faceoff over what would be the largest data center in the Netherlands — known as a “hyperscale” because it spans at least 10,000 square feet and boasts more than 5,000 servers — highlights the emerging fight over how to sustain cloud computing and data streaming while protecting the environment, even if these centers use renewable energy. And as Dutch officials seek to reconcile eliminating carbon from their energy sector by mid-century while building 20 to 25 new or expanded data centers, Zeewolde has emerged as a test of what’s possible.

Michiel de Vries, professor of public administration at Radboud University in the Netherlands, said that establishing massive data centers to power new technology “has huge environmental side effects. The question is how governments could, should and do respond to plans of high-tech companies to make such investments in their territory.”

Surrounded by a small lake and a deciduous forest, the town of Zeewolde didn’t exist until 1979, when its first inhabitants arrived at a planned community built on land recovered from the sea. It grew from a place with no electricity or tap water to one with roughly 22,000 residents, many of whom raise onions, sugar beets and potatoes, or cattle.

It is also the country’s only city that generates more renewable power than it consumes in fossil fuels, hosting one of the country’s largest onshore wind farms. While this made it an attractive site for Meta — which aims to serve tens of millions of European Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp users with a single data center — it has raised questions about whether Dutch officials can reconcile their quest to dominate this corner of the computing market with the nation’s sustainability goals.

De Vries estimated that, according to Meta’s projections, the data center will consume at least 1.3 terawatts of electrical power per year, which would tap a huge share of the country’s renewable energy.

“That is equal to the total energy consumption of all households in the city of Amsterdam,” de Vries said in a phone interview. “That’s not a trifle.”

The Netherlands, which is a little larger than Maryland, already hosts approximately 200 data centers, including Google and Microsoft hyperscales. The government has been “very eager” to recruit such projects, de Vries said, offering low taxes and cut-rate electricity prices.

These operations account for about 2 percent of the country’s energy demand, according to Martien Visser, a lecturer in energy transition at Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, and use 10 percent of its wind power.

Visser added that the Netherlands aims to increase its wind energy supply between now and the end of the decade through offshore turbines, but said that a major expansion of data centers could sap that additional supply.

While local leaders in Zeewolde had been talking to Meta, formerly known as Facebook, since 2019, these plans attracted national attention only late last year when its local council voted to change the zoning plan to reassign agricultural land as an industrial area. The move would clear the way for the national government, which has the authority to sell the land, to transfer it to Meta.

Farmers and other residents, as well as organizations such as LTO Noord, a business association for the region’s farmers and horticulturists, objected ahead of the vote.

LTO President Jaap Lodders said in an interview that owing to its sea-rescued roots, the soil in Zeewolde is uniquely rich — the best in the country — and should be reserved for agriculture. But land is not the only resource at stake.

“We are also concerned for the water quality,” he said. “The local canal water would be used for cooling, but to protect the cooling systems it will be treated with chemicals, then returned to the canal. But we have no guarantee it will be clean.”

Local Zeewolde activist Susan Schaap, who has lived in Zeewolde for 25 years, has been leading the charge against the building of the center for more than a year as chair of the DataTruc Zeewolde Foundation, a community protest group. The organization has sought to mobilize support for this cause through a website, a petition and — somewhat ironically — a Facebook page.

“We use Facebook against Facebook,” she said in an interview. “Because of the noise we made — we just kept yelling and screaming to put the focus on this issue — now people in the government in The Hague are scratching their heads and thinking, ‘Maybe we need to think about a new policy concerning hyperscales.’”

Now, these projects are facing stricter scrutiny. In February the country’s minister of housing and spatial planning, Hugo de Jonge, said he would place a nine-month moratorium on granting applications for new data centers while he reviews how they fit in with a national plan that charts future development given climate impacts and other challenges.

But de Jonge made it clear this pause did not apply to the Zeewolde project, since the national minister of internal affairs, who holds the authority to sell the land in question, assured the local government last August that the sale could go through.

Voters in Zeewolde, however, had other plans. In March, the elected officials who had backed the data center lost in a landslide to Leefbaar Zeewolde, a party that ran on its opposition to the project.

Shortly after those local elections, Christine Teunissen, a member of parliament with the pro-environment Partij voor de Dieren (“Party for the Animals”), brought a motion to the floor asking the government to make the planned Meta data center subject to the government’s ongoing environmental review.

The motion, which said the project would impose a “heavy burden on energy supplies, fertile agricultural land and scarce freshwater supplies,” passed by a vote of 82 to 68.

“Ten minutes after the vote, there was a message on our national news that Meta was pausing its plans to put the data center there,” Teunissen recalled in an interview.

Meta issued a statement emphasizing its focus on maintaining good relations with local residents.

“We strongly believe in being good neighbors, so from day one of this journey we stressed a good fit between our project and the community is foremost among the criteria we consider when initiating and continuing our development processes,” the company said. “Given the current circumstances, we have decided to pause our development efforts in Zeewolde.”

Stijn Grove, managing director of the Dutch data center association, said many who oppose these operations still rely on them in their everyday lives.

“Even though everyone is working from home, everyone is on their mobile phone constantly, watching Netflix … and still they don’t want data centers,” he said. “There’s a real disconnect in this world.”

Grove said he would welcome a national policy, rather than the current piecemeal approach.

“Make a central policy on digital infrastructure, because we all need it. But we push it to lower layers of government, and then it spreads, and nobody is responsible, and things get messy,” he said. “And that’s what you saw in Zeewolde. You cannot have on the one hand a goal where you say we want to be digitally advanced, and then on the other hand you don’t have a policy on the digital infrastructure that is needed for that.”

Sen. Arda Gerkens, who belongs to the Socialist Party and voted in favor of the motion, acknowledged the nation needs data centers but says the government should weigh which data centers it allows and what resources they absorb.

“[Meta’s plans] would mean that the existing sustainable energy would go to this particular data center instead of going to households,” she said. “If you have scarce sustainable energy and scarce landscape, then you should look at the added value of such a data center. And basically, Facebook doesn’t have an added value. Not in my opinion.”

De Vries, the professor, said that the government could establish some standards for these sites.

“You can say you cannot use drinking water,” he said. “Put solar panels on your roof. Build big walls to reduce the noise levels. Build a nice data center, not just a block of bricks — something that’s not so ugly.”

In the end, the planning minister will decide whether Meta can buy land in Zeewolde. “If Hugo de Jonge says we will sell it, then Meta can go on,” Teunissen said.

Some in Zeewolde, such as farmer Leon de Geus, still hope the company will build the computing center. In an interview, he noted that the community always planned to use part of the site for an industrial purpose, and a data center would be a less disruptive option than a distribution warehouse or some other businesses.

“We are happy with Meta as a neighbor, and I hope they will come,” he said. “I’ve seen the plans for the data center,” he says.” I was surprised. It’s beautiful. It’s green. There are trees, there’s wood and water. … The cows can still walk around. It’s fantastic.”

But for now, local activist Schaap is relieved by Meta’s decision to reassess its plans. “It’s not up to Mark Zuckerberg to decide whether the data center is welcome here or not,” she said, referring to Meta’s chief executive. “We don’t want it. Seventy percent of the people in the village don’t want this thing here.”

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