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The “whole systems” energy sustainability of digitalization: Humanizing the community risks and benefits of Nordic datacenter development

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Journal Article

Sovacool, Benjamin K., Paul Upham, and Chukwuka G. Monyei. 2022. “The ‘Whole Systems’ Energy Sustainability of Digitalization: Humanizing the Community Risks and Benefits of Nordic Datacenter Development.” Energy Research & Social Science 88 (June): 102493.

Digital platforms and the online services that they provide have become an indispensable and ubiquitous part of modern lifestyles, mediating our jobs, hobbies, patterns of consumption and forms of communication. However, no one is steering this development, or closely looking at the impacts that it may have on remote communities in the Arctic and Nordic region, a hotspot for datacenter development. Moreover, unlike other areas of energy consumption or technology adoption prone to rich, qualitative assessments, such work on datacenters involving local stakeholders and environmental concerns is less common, particularly at a larger scale. In this study, based on novel mixed methods—including corporate data, expert interviews, focus groups, and extensive site visits—across three countries, we offer a geographically and technologically bounded assessment looking at the sustainability impacts of datacenters on local communities. We ask: What impacts are occurring as part of datacenter development or planning proposals in Greenland, Iceland, and Norway? What is the actual and anticipated scale of those impacts on local Arctic communities? Finally, what impacts to datacenter development occur at the “whole systems” level? We examine not only impacts onsite at existing or proposed datacenters, but an entire range of consequences including the manufacturing of equipment, the laying of data cables, the construction of buildings, and issues of the dark web, cryptocurrency mining, hacking, spying, waste and decommissioning. Moreover, we humanize risks and benefits not only across scales, but also categorical types, including local impacts such as boom and bust cycles, the displacement of indigenous groups for land – particularly for power supply - and impacts on employment, especially after datacenters may close.

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