Cheap and abundant renewable energy powers Quebec’s data center cluster, Telecom News, ET Telecom


Beauharnois: With large amounts of cheap, renewable electricity mainly produced from hydroelectric dams, Quebec is seeing more and more tech giants installing energy-hungry data centers in the Canadian province.

The demand for cloud services has skyrocketed the number of data centers around the world, and in Quebec alone, some 50 of them are now operating where only 39 existed two years ago.

Many are owned by multinational companies such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Google, and IBM.

Quebec’s capacity is still low compared to its competitors: Data Center Alley in Ashburn, Virginia hosts 70% of all global Internet traffic, while the Ile-de-France region around Paris has 120 data centers.

But the Canadian province hopes to woo more companies in this space.

In recent years, “we have seen the arrival of new players, and very big players,” said Stéphane Paquet, General Manager of Montreal International, the organization responsible for the economic promotion of Canada’s third largest metropolis.

Google is increasing its presence in Quebec with the purchase of approximately 60 hectares (150 acres) on which it will build its first local data center for 735 million Canadian dollars (600 million US dollars). Microsoft, which is also looking to expand, bought land in Quebec.

The French cloud computing pioneer OVHcloud set up one of its 32 data centers in Quebec in 2012.

Inside a former aluminum factory in the suburbs of Montreal, tens of thousands of servers are stacked row after row, linked by a tangle of wires. A deafening buzz along with non-stop flashing red and green lights create a sensory deluge.

“The objective was to establish itself on the American continent and Quebec was a natural gateway, while offering an inexhaustible source of renewable energy. This may not be the only reason, but it played a big role in our decision, ”Estelle Azemard, OVHcloud vice-president for the Americas, told AFP.

Its 10,000 square meter (105,000 square foot) facility is located in Beauharnois, a few dozen kilometers from downtown Montreal, near a hydroelectric dam.

The company has developed a technology to cool its servers using water, which eliminates the need for more expensive air conditioning.

“The environment is really at the heart of our business model,” said Azemard.

Cheap electricity

Presenting an important financial argument for relocation, Quebec prides itself on having low-cost electricity of approximately CAN $ 0.05 per kilowatt hour, significantly cheaper than in Europe or the United States.

“Our rates are among the most advantageous in the world,” said Cendrix Bouchard, spokesperson for the Hydro-Quebec public service, which manages the production, transmission and distribution of electricity in the province.

“Businesses have come here because it’s cheap, but mostly because the energy (99%) is renewable,” Paquet told AFP.

Long, cold winters in the francophone province also reduce the amount of power needed in data centers to cool computers, he said.

Power-hungry data centers must constantly be cooled to avoid overheating servers.

This sector, which is facing an explosion in data traffic, emits nearly 4% of greenhouse gases in the world, more than civil air transport, according to a 2019 report by the French think tank The Shift Project.

In Quebec, the annual electricity consumption of data centers is approximately 663 gigawatt hours (GWh), or the equivalent of the consumption of 40,000 households.

“It is better to install data centers in places supplied with hydraulic, solar or even nuclear electricity, than supplied by electricity produced by coal-fired power stations”, estimates Hugues Ferreboeuf of The Shift Project.

“But that’s not enough,” he warned. “At the same time, they must manage to control the growth in their consumption, otherwise they will capture too much of the electricity produced by renewable energies.

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