Assoon as Lars Ruiter gets out of his car, he is confronted by a security guard from Microsoft, already in turmoil. Ruiter, a local councilor, parked in the rain outside a half-finished Microsoft data center that rises on the flat farmland of North Holland. He wants to see the construction site. The guard, who recognizes Ruiter from the last time he brought a TV crew here, says it’s not allowed. Within minutes, the argument escalated and the guard has his hand around Ruiter’s throat.
The security guard lets go of Ruiter within seconds and the counselor escapes with a red mark on his neck. Back in his car, Ruiter insists he’s fine. But his hands shake when he tries to shift gears. He says the altercation – which he will later report to the police – shows the fog of secrecy surrounding the expansion of the Netherlands data center business.
“We regret an interaction that took place outside of our data center campus, apparently involving one of Microsoft’s contractors,” said Craig Cincotta, Microsoft’s chief executive, adding that the company would cooperate with authorities.
The heated exchange between Ruiter and Microsoft’s security guard shows just how controversial Big Tech’s data centers have become in rural Holland. As the Dutch government sets tough environmental targets to reduce emissions, industries are forced to compete for space on Dutch farmland, pitting big tech against the increasingly political Dutch farmer population.
There are around 200 data centers in the Netherlands, most of them renting server space from several different companies. But since 2015, the country has also seen the arrival of massive “hyperscalers,” buildings that typically span at least 10,000 square feet and are designed to serve a single (usually American) tech giant. Drawn here by the convergence of European internet cables, temperate climates and an abundance of green energy, Microsoft and Google have built hyperscalers; Meta tried and failed.
Against the backdrop of an escalating Dutch nitrogen crisis, the construction of these hyperscalers is becoming increasingly controversial. Nitrogen, produced by cars, agriculture and heavy machinery used in construction, can be a dangerous pollutant, damaging ecosystems and endangering people’s health. The Netherlands produces four times more nitrogen than the EU average. The Dutch government has pledged to halve emissions by 2030, in part by persuading farmers to reduce their herds or exit the industry altogether. Farmers responded with protests, blocking roads with tractors and manure and dumping slurry outside the home of the Minister for Nature.
Courts have also halted thousands of construction projects, forcing construction companies like Microsoft’s to apply for permits that prove they won’t make the nitrogen crisis worse.
However, Microsoft’s new data center has yet to receive these permissions. The local environment agency told WIRED it was still assessing the company’s documents. In a system where farmers’ and property developers’ projects are stalled waiting for nitrogen permits, it feels like Microsoft has skipped the queue. “They don’t have the right permits to build,” says Ruiter, who represents the municipality of Hollands Kroon. For him, it’s a double standard to let Microsoft continue building while other construction work has been put on hold. “When farmers don’t have permission to build a farm, they won’t build the farm. Microsoft doesn’t have the right permission to build a data center, but they have already started building the data center. »