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.

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Julia Velkova

Julia Velkova (PI) is a media and communications scholar and associate professor at the Department for Thematic Studies – Technology and Social Change, Linköping University. She studies media infrastructures — from software and algorithms, to data centers and telephone cables — and the politics of their making and unmaking. She is also currently a ProFutura Scientia fellow with the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies.

In the Megabytes and Megawatts project Julia explores the local politics and relations between big wind and big data enabled through Google PPA agreements in Jämtland, mid Sweden. She also studies the politics of dismantling data centers when they are used as energy infrastructure.

Personal website: www.juliavelkova.org
Recent book: Media Backends: Digital Infrastructures and Sociotechnical Relations (2023, co-edited with Lisa Parks and Sander De Ridder, University of Illinois Press)

 

Portrait of Laura Watts
Laura Watts

Laura Watts

Laura Watts (Co-I) is an ethnographer of futures, author, and Visiting Professor at the Department for Thematic Studies – Technology and Social Change, Linköping University. As a scholar in Science Technology Studies (STS) she has spent the last two decades exploring how energy and tech futures get imagined in made in landscapes at the edge, as well as methods for writing futures otherwise.

Building on her experiences as a consultant on energy data governance, and community-led virtual power plants, her work on Megabytes and Megawatts explores the cultural intersection between the energy and data industries, particularly as it is manifest in NetZero infrastructure imaginaries and implementation.

Personal website: https://sand14.com
Lastest book: Energy at the End of the World

 

 

Flora Mary Bartlett

Flora Mary Bartlett (Co-I) is a visual and environmental anthropologist, photographer, and postdoctoral researcher at the Department for Thematic Studies – Technology and Social Change, Linköping University. She studies landscape relations and sustainable imaginaries in rural Sweden, using co-curatorial research practice and creative visual methodologies to bring the environment into image making.

In Megabytes vs Megawatts she examines the emerging relations and frictions as rural Swedish landscapes are re-imagined in the transition to digitization and renewable energy futures.

Personal website: www.florabartlett.com
Latest publication: Visualizing the Pristine: The Role of Imagery in Local Stewardship of Landscape

Linköpings universitet

Harald Rohracher

Harald Rohracher (Co-I) Harald Rohracher is Professor of Technology and Social Change at Linköping University. He has been co-founder and director of the Inter-University Research Centre for Technology, Work and Culture (IFZ), Graz, Austria (1999-2007), Joseph A. Schumpeter Fellow at Harvard University (2009-10) and Simon Visiting Professor at Manchester University (2013). In his research he is interested in the governance of transformative socio-technical change, in particular urban sustainability transitions, transformative innovation policies, and implications of the digitalisation of the energy system.

Portrait photo

Johanna Sefyrin

Johanna Sefyrin (Co-I) is senior lecturer in informatics/information systems and studies practices, relations and stories concerning design, use and consequences of digital technologies. She has been focusing on questions about what and who becomes visible in relation to digital technologies, with a focus on gender, participation, power and knowledge. In the Megabytes and Megawatts project Johanna focuses on local and global relations of just and sustainable digitalization starting with a planned datacenter in Jämtland, Sweden.

Magnus Johansson

Ulf Melin

Ulf Melin is a professor of information systems and his research interest is focused on different aspects of digitalization including public sector digitalization, digital services, change, (open) data and governance.

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