Magnetic north: Scotland’s renewable future as a data centre hub

With green credentials that include the UK’s lowest carbon energy intensity, increasing access to RERs, low-cost land and political backing, are the pieces in place for Scotland to fulfil its data centre sector potential? By Kerr Johnstone, Director, i3 Solutions Group.

Scotland has been talked about as a location for big and hyperscale data centres for almost two decades. The geography, climate, access to renewables, and improving subsea connectivity, tick many of the development criteria boxes for data centres.

All reinforce the huge potential for the country to attract multiple large scale data centre developments.

Scotland is green. A major positive for Scotland is its increasing access to renewable power generation resources. Scotland’s renewable energy capacity reached 13.6GW in September 20221, a rise of 11.7% on the previous year due in most part to more onshore and offshore wind coming on stream.

The electricity used in the south of Scotland – which includes the central belt – has been the greenest (measured as grams of carbon dioxide equivalent produced per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated (gCO2e/kWh) of anywhere in Great Britain since the turn of the decade. This is according to independent research commissioned by Scotland’s leading data centre and multi-cloud services provider DataVita.

The data showed that the south of Scotland had the lowest average gCO2e/kWh rate of any region within The United Kingdom at just over 47 grams per hour since January 2020.

DataVita says in particular periods an IT workload hosted in Scotland could be 11 times less carbon intense that the worst performing location in the UK and three times less intense than a workload running in London.

On land, under the sea

Scotland’s land cost and site quality are attracting interest.

In May 2023 Scottish Futures Trust/Host in Scotland, Crown Estate Scotland and Scottish Enterprise issued an updated Site Selection Report.

In March 2021 Host in Scotland, partnering with Scottish Enterprise (SE) and Crown Estate Scotland (CES), commissioned a report which drew up a shortlist of sites it says are ready for green data centre development projects. From a long list of 80 suitable sites, it named 36 prime locations from the borders to Inverness based on criteria including available power, renewables access, land scale and connectivity.

The updated 2023 Site Selection report allowed previous sites selected to be checked for their availability and updates on their development status to be included. [Since 2021] new sites for potential data centre development have been sought by contacting local authorities, various government agencies and property agents. This has resulted in an increase of 5 new shortlisted sites representing the best sites for data centre development across the country. Some of these sites are suitable for urban colocation use whilst other sites are considered more suitable for rural hyperscale development.

Scotland’s mountainous geography is also a plus. In March 2023 energy giant SSE said it would invest £100m in a pumped hydro energy storage facility in the Scottish Highlands.

And going all the way back to 2009 when the Crown Estate licensed its part of the seabed in Pentland firth to tidal power developer MeyGen plc, stories of the potential for 800MW data centres running on clean power have surfaced regularly. Swiss power giant ABB provides the grid connection for MeyGen in a deal announced in 2014.

Diverse fiber connectivity to Scotland is improving. Tampnet Carrier is a Nordic based high-speed network operator responsible for over 30% of the traffic between Norway, the UK and Europe.

The company has two routes from Scotland to London. One from its PoP in Edinburgh connects directly to London offering diversity for data transfers.

Another route from Edinburgh utilizes Tampnet’s subsea network in the North Sea connecting with the burgeoning data centre market in the Nordics.

FARICE-1 is a submarine communications cable connecting Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Scotland. The cable has been in use since January 2004.

Within the country the Scottish Government says £1 billion has been invested in such programmes as Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB), Reaching 100% (R100) and Scottish 4G Infill (S4GI). These, alongside extensive commercial investment, have greatly extended the reach and capacity of fibre networks across the country.

Time to scale

Scotland’s ability to attract hyperscale data centre developments would appear to reside in its renewable power generation capacity and energy storage potential.

As i3 Solutions Group GHG abatement initiative shows, evaluation of clean on-site power generation; Power storage such as battery (chemical), Kinetic, Pumped Hydro, and Gravity; Microgrids (islanded and integrated operation) and new revenue potential of being a grid power supplier are fundamental considerations for large scale developments.

Scotland’s initial attractiveness will be viewed through access to thousands of megawatts of renewable energy power generation plus its low carbon intensity grid.

However, while power remains the dominant factor, other advantageous considerations around planning, location, design and operation cannot be ignored.

The planning environment for data centre development expects integration with local economies, Scotland’s broader economy and adherence to sustainability goals. This could work in favour of developers.

For example, in 2021 the Scottish Government passed The Heat Networks (Scotland) Act 2021 to accelerate the deployment of district heating in population centres. This could make metro data centre developments attractive. Use cases for data centre heat reuse in rural locations include Scotland’s historically large and rapidly growing agriculture and aqua culture sectors.

Scotland’s skills base is built on a historical engineering prowess in areas such as transport and, oil and gas which are transitioning to leadership in hydrogen and sustainable fuel and energy alternatives.

On the mechanical engineering design front the country’s low ambient temperatures and soft water resources provide options for adiabatic cooling and enhanced free cooling opportunities to improve efficiency through low PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness).

Scotland is also sparsely populated. Covering an area of 78,782 square kilometres (30,418 sq mi), its population density is listed at 67.2 people per km2 (174/sq mi). Compare this with England where the population density is over 430 per km2 . That means for site selection there is high quality land available which in turn creates opportunities for modern buildings with highly efficient electrical and mechanical infrastructure design.

Digital infrastructure requires long term sustainability. All large-scale data centre developments are seeking a clean energy future but many will also require the combination of benefits that Scotland has in abundance.

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