The Icelandic minister of industries and innovation yesterday said she wants Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook to consider Iceland as a possible location for their energy-intensive data centres. 

Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon have opened data centres in Scandinavia and the Nordics over the last few years in a bid to better serve customers in Europe and Russia. The data centres are built in these northerly latitudes, where temperatures hover around zero for much of the year, in order to keep the thousands of server racks within them cool and eliminate the need for expensive air cooling systems. 

Iceland's cold weather is perfect for data centres ©Flickr
Iceland's cold weather is perfect for data centres ©Flickr

However, Iceland, home to just over 300,000 people and approximately three hours by plane from London, is yet to convince a multi-billion dollar internet company to build a data centre on its shores. 

Minister Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir told Techworld: “We can feel that there’s growing interest. There are an increasing number of data centre companies coming here. You see the investment with Verne Global.”

When asked if she would like to see a company like Google or Facebook building a data centre in Iceland, she replied with: “Of course, of course.”

There are at least five large data centres in Iceland now and Árnadóttir said the country’s national power company, Landsvirkjun, is in talks with 10 to 12 others that are interested in opening up facilities in the region. 

She refused to divulge whether Iceland was in discussions with Google, Amazon, Apple or Facebook, possibly due to the commercially sensitive nature that would surround such talks. 

Cool and renewable 

In addition to a cool climate, Iceland also has an abundance of cheap, renewable energy, thanks in part to its location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

The country’s abundance of geothermal power is generated from the lava that rises up to the surface as the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates move away from each other, currently at a rate of approximately 2-3cm a year. Iceland's five geothermal power plants inject water deep into the ground and the steam that is generated when the water is heated by the lava is used to drive electricity-generating turbines. 

In 2010, geothermal power accounted for 26.2 percent of Iceland's overall power but the nation is only harnessing a tiny fraction of what's available. Beyond geothermal, 73.8 percent of the nation’s electricity is generated by hydro power, while just 0.1 percent comes from fossil fuels.

The abundance of resources means that energy in Iceland is much cheaper than in other European nations. 

German automotive giant BMW said it achieved savings of 83 percent on its energy bill when it moved a supercomputer out of a data centre in Germany to the Verne Global site in south west Iceland. 

Global technology companies are coming under increasing pressure to lower the carbon footprint of their power-hungry data centres from activists at charities like Greenpeace, which has targeted Amazon in particular in recent years. 

Einar Hansen Tómasson, project manager of foreign direct investment at government-backed Promote Iceland, said he’s “sure” the large internet companies will come to Iceland in the future, adding that he isn’t sure why they haven’t already arrived. “They have been observing Iceland for many years,” he said.  

Tómasson, who is tasked with getting international companies to build their data centres in Iceland, said: “We can easily serve western Europe and central Europe today, as well as the east coast of the US. As the technical aspects grow in terms of latency, we will be able to serve the eastern market in the future.” 

Volcanoes and earthquakes

While Iceland’s tectonic activity generates geothermal power, it also triggers volcanic eruptions and earthquakes - two things that internet giants don’t want their “always on” data centres exposed to. “In people’s mindset it’s probably an issue for some of them,” admitted Tómasson. 

However, Tómasson, who is also responsible for persuading film producers to use Iceland as a filming location, and has successfully attracted those behind Game of Thrones, Batman Begins and Noah to film multiple scenes across Iceland's varied landscapes, said they needn’t worry. “You have the two tectonic plates in Iceland drifting apart so there’s a constant pressure release every day with maybe 200 very small earthquakes a day,” he said. “They’re actually vital to us because it helps us to create geothermal power, which is a green power.”

Many of the large Silicon Valley internet companies in question have also built data centres near their headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area, added Tómasson. “That’s where you have tectonic plates pressing against each other. So there is a constant build up of pressure for a long period and it will snap. They just don’t know when.” 

Tómasson also claims that volcanic eruptions have little to no impact on data centres in Iceland. 

“During the Evaknojokull eruption, not a single lightbulb went out,” he said. “The only thing Verne Global had to do was change the filters more often but still less than you have to do in Arizona and New Mexico because of sand.” 

For years, the "land of ice and fire" has been dependent on the three pillars of fishing, aluminium smelting and tourism but now the country needs to think about the industries of the future: data centres, prosthetics and food manufacturing, for example. 

If Google or Facebook were to build a data centre in Iceland then it's likely that several other large technology companies would follow suit, thereby putting this remote nation firmly on the world's data centre map and preventing it from getting left behind in the pre-internet era.