This giant geothermal plant is surrounded by lava. It could help solve tech's energy problem

By using hydroelectric and geothermal power and newly laid subsea cabling, a group of data centre companies want to provide a more sustainable way to keep the data flowing.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

The Hellisheiði Power Station is the largest in Iceland.

Image: ON Power

I'm looking out across what feels like a lunar landscape, with tall columns of hot steam billowing into the air from the Hellisheiði plant, which is surrounded by lava and one of the largest geothermal power stations in the world.

A few hours later, I'm standing in an underground cavern beneath Ljósafoss hydroelectric power station and there's an almost-deafening sound as thousands of litres of water rush through pipes to the station's turbines and out into the river below, creating huge amounts of electricity in the process.

Welcome to Iceland, home to an array of hydroelectric and geothermal facilities which together account for nearly 70% and 30% respectively of the country's energy production (there's a bit of wind power, too). 

While the rest of Europe suffers from escalating gas prices and ponders a winter of power cuts, Iceland has taken advantage of its natural resources and uses 100% renewable energy, such as the hydroelectric plant operated by Landsvirkjun and the geothermal facility by ON Power, which fuel everything from homes to cars – and data centres.


The Ljósafoss hydroelectric power station in Iceland.

Image: Landsvirkjun

These large-scale developments are exciting and pioneering, but they're also potentially critical for tech professionals charged with reducing their organisation's carbon emissions and boosting its green credentials.

Technology has the power to change all our lives for the better, yet our ever-growing reliance on data is creating a big strain on the environment. 

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Estimates suggest the IT industry accounts for about 3% of global carbon emissions. The most significant contributors of greenhouse gases in the IT sector are data centres (45%). 

Our continuing demand for information will create more upwards pressure on the environment and risks further increases in emissions. So, is there a way to help deal with these demands in a more sustainable manner?

To the far north of Europe, a group of companies in Iceland that provide power facilities, data centres and subsea cabling believe their combined resources offer a greener alternative.

One of the people helping to lead this charge is Tate Cantrell, CTO at Verne Global, a data centre company whose facilities are powered 100% by sustainable energy sources, including hydroelectric and geothermal energy in Iceland.

Cantrell says increasing numbers of professionals in big enterprises are waking up to the fact that sustainability is something that not only matters to the board but also to the end customers who use a company's products.

Consumers don't want their green principles undermined by the activities of the companies that produce these goods – and technology is very much part of that production process.


Verne Global's data centre facilities in Iceland are powered by sustainable sources.

Image: Verne Global

Research for consultant Deloitte says consumers list the reduction of waste in manufacturing processes and a reduction in carbon footprint as two of their top-five most important environmentally sustainable or ethical practices.

Some companies are already aware of the role that IT plays in the production process. Cantrell gives the example of BMW, which is one of Verne's long-standing customers. 

"The reason that they chose us back in in 2012 was they wanted to prove to the world that not only were they building the next generation of sustainable cars, but they were aware that data centres are part of the raw materials that made up the cars," he says. 

Cantrell says the shift to sustainable computing power as part of the production process isn't a trend that's slowing down – he says other firms in the manufacturing and finance sectors are also making similar moves.

That's something also recognised by Gisli Kr., chief commercial officer of data centre specialist atNorth, whose company has been offering high-performance compute at scale since 2009.

"Today, environmentally sustainable compute is now available at a lower cost. Our customers are corporate clients and this is hitting the conversation in mainstream enterprises."


High-performance compute facilities in Iceland.

Image: atNorth

With affordable, sustainable power in short supply across mainland Europe, an increasing number of professionals who are looking to run workloads efficiently and cost effectively could consider Iceland. So, what's the catch?

One significant hurdle is latency. Iceland is a long way from mainland Europe – and this distance matters when you're passing data along subsea cables to make important, maybe even real-time, business decisions.

Gisli Kr. recognises that extremely low latency will be crucial to some professionals, such as those working in high-frequency trading. 

However, he believes up to 95% of applications can run effectively from Iceland. He encourages business leaders to "zoom out" and think about what represents acceptable latency for their business. 

"It takes courage," he says. "One of our financial services customers decided to place their data in a low-carbon footprint area. They had three data centres in the UK and mainland Europe with very low latency between the sites. They moved a third of their workload to Iceland – and, once they were up and running, they found that they were getting lower total costs of ownership for their workload in Iceland than in their previous locations." 

This finance firm undertook a huge amount of work to make their applications work with lower latency. Now, the firm runs its analytics application from Iceland with lower costs and a lower carbon footprint. 

As an added bonus, the company's efforts to optimise its applications mean these tools can now be deployed anywhere in the world, which gives the firm more flexibility and resiliency in terms of its application stack.

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Professionals should note there will be a further boost to data speeds next year, when Farice, the telecommunications specialist and subsea cable operator, opens IRIS, it's third and most up-to-date data connection between Iceland and Europe.

Þorvarður Sveinsson, CEO at Farice, says the project to create this third cable has been a long time in gestation and much of the effort to establish the 1,750 km-long cable goes on behind the scenes. 

"It's taken four years, but you don't see much of the work. The cables are designed in the US, you see the cable landing on the coast, and then the ship sails away and lays the cable."


Laying the Icelandic subsea cables.

Image: Farice

All this effort should bring big rewards. Currently, about two-thirds of Farice's cabling capacity is used by data centres. The new cable will offer a boost in capacity and speeds.

The current latency for data travelling between Reykjavik and London is 18ms one-way. IRIS will bring one-way latency to London down to 15ms and around 10.5ms to Ireland. 

"The latency reductions mean that, even though it's far north, Iceland is moving closer to Europe," says Sveinsson.

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