Data centers in the Energy Efficiency Act: Heat transition needs more than business games

At least 30 percent of the waste heat should be used sustainably from January 1, 2025, and then 40 percent from 2027: the shattered draft of the energy efficiency law planned by the federal government confronts data center operators with major demands. The feasibility is considered controversial, and there is a need for discussion: the planned law raises many questions at this point in time. Hesse’s Digital Minister Prof. Dr. Kristina Sinemus therefore invited representatives of the data center industry as well as various associations and companies to a panel discussion on exchange at the Hessian State Representation in Berlin.

With the Energy Efficiency Act, the federal government wants to achieve, among other things, that from 2025 data centers have to cover their energy requirements 100 percent with unsubsidized electricity from renewable energies. With the current electricity mix in Germany, this goal does not seem achievable, since solar and wind power are subject to large fluctuations and the operation of data centers cannot be guaranteed around the clock. Advances in storage media should therefore also be important in order to be able to dive through “dark doldrums” without failures.

The panel discussion on November 11, 2022 was about factual clarification and exchange between stakeholders and experts under the title “Data centers as a foundation for sustainable digitization – approaches, framework conditions, scope for action”. The key question of the discussion was what contribution the data centers and their operators can make. The starting point is that the Energy Efficiency Act planned at federal level in its current form would have a significant impact on the industry and the business location.

At the same time, corresponding legislation has been in preparation at the European level for a long time, which would make a “German solo effort” appear questionable, which would run counter to the content of the European legal framework. Heise Developer was invited to the panel and subsequently had the opportunity to speak to the minister and some data center operators.

Hesse's Digital Minister Prof. Dr.  Kristina Sinemus in a press round in Berlin, Hessian State Representation

Hesse's Digital Minister Prof. Dr.  Kristina Sinemus in a press round in Berlin, Hessian State Representation

Hesse has a digital department based in the State Chancellery, which discusses and acts as a cross-sectional bundling ministry. Together with colleagues from Spiegel and dpa, heise Developer took part in the press round with Digital Minister Prof. Dr. Kristina Sinemus and Dr. Bela Waldhauser. Sinemus attaches great importance to bringing business and science to the table and pursues a stakeholder approach that is familiar from business. Hesse has set up a data center office, the head of which, Ms. Koch, bundles concerns on the subject and advises data center operators and potential founders. Advice, support and networks should be offered here from a single source. Contact persons are taught what should bring a simplification of bureaucratic processes.

Tackling rigidities with dialogue seems to be typical of Sinemus, who conveys a hands-on style and has long been non-partisan. Since the federal states apart from Hesse and Bavaria have no digital ministries, Sinemus and her Bavarian counterpart launched the D-16 round, in which those responsible from different areas of state politics have been meeting regularly since 2019. Baden-W├╝rttemberg is currently in the chair, and the Energy Efficiency Act will be on the agenda at the next meeting. Sinemus himself was very committed to setting up a research center for AI in Hesse and launched together with the Ministry of Economics and Science and partners at TUs and universities, the costs are shared between three. She uses examples like this to demonstrate the success of a bundling agency: “It doesn’t have to be a ministry of its own, but a body with an overview.”

Think and work across departments

As far as the current legislation is concerned, her advice would be to wait for the European regulation first and to collect experience before the regulation, to test the implementation and to rely on self-commitment. The European Commission is in dialogue with associations and experts on the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED). If regulations are stricter in Germany than in Brussels, the result would be a crippling wave of lawsuits. At the European level, there is often helplessness when a commissioner, for example, is looking for a contact person for topics such as artificial intelligence and digitization for AI regulation at federal level. Taking on responsibilities across departments is promising. You don’t need your own administrative structures for everything, but more project planning control through bundling and coordination – with the possibility of taking action at the federal level. Sinemus sees technology and digitization as services of general interest.

dr Ralph Hinteman, Senior Researcher at the Borderstep Institutepresented at the event Results of a study on sustainability potential through digitization. Hintemann is a lecturer at the University of Oldenburg and at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, and he regularly prepares independent scientific studies. He and his team provided one Boom in data center construction firm compared to the situation ten years ago. The Rhine-Main area particularly stands out with Frankfurt as a “hotspot”. There are different types of data centers – not just the “big gray concrete blocks” with several megawatts of power consumption and colocation for hyperscalers. Edge computing and small data centers are on the rise. Medium-sized companies in particular also operate their own server rooms in Germany, which under certain circumstances would also be covered by the planned regulation by the Energy Efficiency Act.

The power consumption, the use of waste heat and the local environment are essential for the sustainability of data centers. When it comes to the impact of electricity consumption, it should be borne in mind that the electricity mix available in Germany is not one hundred percent sustainable, which makes it difficult for data center operators as bulk buyers to meet the requirement for “100% green electricity” – almost all large data centers already have green electricity contracts. In terms of heat transition, they could in principle provide parts of the population with heat at low cost, but the use of waste heat is still associated with high hurdles.

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