Megabytes vs Megawatts: Understanding Infrastructural Frictions between Data Centers and Energy Grids for Sustainable Digitalization

data center
Julia Velkova

Megabytes vs Megawatts is a research project that studies ongoing infrastructure developments and societal imaginaries to make data centers more environmentally sustainable.

Our focus is on how ideas of sustainability are produced at the intersection between data infrastructure and energy grids, what challenges and societal frictions emerge when these two critical infrastructures interrelate, and how are these challenges imagined to be resolved.

These questions are critical to ask now, because we live in a moment when data centers support large societal and industrial transformations including AI development, climate modelling, and everyday digital services. At the same time, social science and humanities researchers have shown how data center energy consumption is at a scale that increasingly affects operations of national grids, crowding out competing industries via access to energy, raising conflicts around the fair distribution and access to energy for local communities, and bringing up questions about who loses and who benefits from data infrastructures. At the same time, energy grids that have traditionally been perceived as “stable”, are undergoing major transformations to support a future low carbon economy and industries but are not built to handle a more electrified and digitalized society.

We aim to study what conflicts and new societal visions emerge when actors such as Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and other companies that operate data centers are imagining the sustainable integration between energy-intense data center infrastructure and energy grids, in a context of intensifying electrification and datafication of society? And, how do they negotiate frictions that emerge in different arenas of their interrelation?

We use an interdisciplinary approach to these questions and integrate scholarly competences and perspectives from media infrastructure studies, anthropology and the environmental humanities, energy transition studies, science and technology studies, as well as information systems and design to develop a new perspective on the sustainability of digital technologies by focusing on the long-term governance and sustainable interrelation of digital and energy systems in-transition.

A sustainable society requires that critical societal infrastructures – such as those of digitalization, energy and transport – meet the Global Sustainability Goals and related to them expectations of reconciling environmental, economic and social sustainability at multiple scales. These expectations and related to them transformation processes have so far been predominantly studied with focus on distinct infrastructures that are often seen as discrete entities operating independently of other large socio-technical systems in society. For instance, scholars of digitalization study the environmental sustainability of digital technologies and infrastructure. Scholars of the social studies of energy in society study in turn sustainability conflicts and tensions that emerge in the transition to fossil-free energy infrastructures. These perspectives mirror existing boundaries between disciplines. This project’s point of departure is that there is an urgent need to understand how the processes of making one type of infrastructure sustainable may destabilise and challenge the operations of other critical infrastructures in society. In a context where multiple transitions towards sustainable environment and societies are going on simultaneously, new interrelations between infrastructures and new constellations of actors involved in them need to take shape. Finding new sustainable solutions for the integration of energy and data infrastructures will be a precondition for the decarbonisation of the energy system and the successful digital transformation of industries.

In short

The project is funded by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation and is located at the Department of Thematic Studies — Technology and Social Change, Linköping University (PI Julia Velkova).
Grant award: 5 700 000 SEK

Project members