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Where do you store all the pictures you take on your smartphone? Or the songs, podcasts and TV shows you download from the web? How do you share large files with your friends and family? How do you make sure your devices don’t get clogged with data-hungry content?

The chances are you use ‘the cloud’, whether you realise it or not. Actually, there are quite a few clouds up there, or wherever they are. More and more of us are transferring our files to cloud storage – those invisible, intangible but absolutely vast data warehouses run by the likes of Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Dropbox (other cloud providers are available).

They are even more essential for government, businesses and the world of finance, holding astronomical amounts of information, zillions of gigabytes. All very green, you must be thinking – all entirely paperless, saving goodness-knows-how-many carbon-capturing forests from being hacked down.

Well, yes and no. What the planet has gained in trees is more than countered by a massive increase in demand for electricity, mostly fossil-fuelled, by those data cloud monsters. They may masquerade as something nebulous and ethereal but in reality are enormous warehouses crammed with power-hungry data storage hardware. There are nearly 500 data centres dotted throughout the UK, including a few in Wiltshire. The largest, in Wales, houses 19,000 servers and consumes 250 megawatts of electricity, much of it just to keep all that gear cool. Altogether, by the end of this decade around 25 percent of the nation’s electrical power will be gobbled up by data behemoths.

The trouble is that all this puts a huge strain on the electricity distribution network. The grid is already operating very close to capacity, barely able to cope with major fluctuations in demand and supply. Balancing the grid has become an even trickier juggling act than hitherto, due not only to massive new off-takers connecting up, but also to new large-scale electricity generators such as solar farms coming on stream. The grid’s ageing infrastructure requires constant upgrading, costing over £1 billion a year nationwide just to keep pace.

As a result it’s becoming ever harder to get a grid connection for sizeable projects such as new eco-housing projects or major solar installations – clearly an issue for organisations like Nadder Community Energy, dedicated as we are to more local generation and use of renewable energy.

Fortunately, new approaches to balancing the grid are being explored. Electricity providers have offered time-of-use tariffs like Economy 7 to domestic consumers for years, but are now beginning to offer to pay back those of us with smart meters for using less electricity at certain peak times. This sort of incentive – deal-making according to the time of day or night – is being rolled out to major commercial consumers and generators, with the status of the grid constantly monitored and a new price struck at least every half-hour to iron out the peaks and troughs.

If only the data centres could contribute to this vital balancing act – a forlorn hope, I fear. Their consumption is 24/7 and inexorably upwards. They are a worrying and seemingly unstoppable threat to Net Zero. Come to think of it, to misquote Joni Mitchell: I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, and vital as they are, I really don’t like clouds at all.

Alan Maryon-Davis

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