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World looks to Aust in hunt for data host

Data piped undersea from the United States to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast could be the beginning of a future career for Australians in sustainable mega data centres.

John Lucas, a strategist at net-zero specialist investment manager Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners, says there is an opportunity for Australia to be a big player in green-powered data centres in the Asia-Pacific.

“If we look at the resources Australia has – the strong data sovereignty laws that are in place, its position within the current geopolitical climate around the world – it’s a very strong candidate,” he tells AAP during a visit from the US.

“What we’ve been dealing with a lot lately is, from an ESG (environmental, social and governance) standpoint, is understanding where everything’s coming from,” he says.

“Where are all the components that go into this infrastructure, the renewable energy and security in the supply chain?”

South Korea is a key regional rival but must find large amounts of energy to power and cool new data centres.

Data centre operator Empyrion DC is developing a 40 megawatt green data centre in Gangnam; Digital Edge has a 120MW project in the Asian country and ST Telemedia Global Data Centres unveiled a 30MW development in June, according to research by Fitch Solutions.

Quinbrook’s $2.5 billion, 800MW capacity “Supernode” project in Brisbane is attracting calls from Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix who are looking for a secure place to send huge quantities of data.

“Moving forward, with ESG increasingly at the forefront of companies’ and governments’ agendas, we expect more data centres to shift their focus towards sustainable operations,” Fitch Solutions said in their report.

Australia may lag behind South Korea’s digital adoption and heavy investment in artificial intelligence (AI), the Korean metaverse (K-Metaverse) and 5G.

But, connected to vital undersea cables, Australia is expected to benefit from the demand for data centres the new technologies will bring to the Asia-Pacific and North America.

“By 2025, for all of the major data centre operators, their cloud has to be 100 per cent renewable,” Mr Lucas says.

“By 2030, their cloud has to be net zero or some form of net zero, or even carbon negative.”

Big players such as Microsoft, who have a significant partnership with Australia’s Telstra, are starting to factor in the future pipeline for data centres.

Asked by AAP about prospects for big data, outgoing Telstra chief executive Andy Penn says there are opportunities for Australia’s largest telecommunications company.

“It’s certainly an area we’re investing in,” Mr Penn said after addressing the National Press Club in Canberra.

A recent deal with Microsoft will see them become an anchor tenant on Telstra’s new inter-capital direct fibre network between capital cities, to transmit data in and out of the cloud and their data centre.

But running mega data centres, and large-scale telecommunications, also requires a lot of energy.

“So that’s a challenge,” Mr Penn says.

“But the flip side is that people doing things digitally, generally speaking, is an offset to doing things physically, which has a compensatory impact on the environment.”

Quinbrook’s Mr Lucas says goals for a cleaner economy are also being driven by the customers using the data centres.

“They want their load in the cloud to meet their own sustainability requirements for their company,” he says.

“That’s what really puts Australia at the forefront.

“There’s the opportunity to build a market and continue to grow in the renewable and power space to meet those needs of 100 per cent renewable and net zero.”

The Supernode project has renewable energy and large-scale battery energy storage built in and is close to the heart of the Queensland electricity grid with high-capacity connections already approved.

It can also take advantage of a new undersea cable that has a landing station in Maroochydore in Queensland – providing Australia a link back to the governments and industries of the Americas, who need to send their data somewhere safe.

Queensland’s first direct international data and telecommunications connection to global markets provides the fastest international connection point from east Australia to Asia, according to the state government.

A 550km undersea fibre optic cable connects the Sunshine Coast to the 7000km Japan-Guam-Australia South submarine cable.

The 30 hectare Supernode site at Brendale will intersect the new Torus dark fibre data cable currently under construction that will directly connect Brisbane to the international cable landed at Maroochydore this year.

“Infrastructure like that, along with the ability to continue to develop a renewable energy industry in Australia, really helps to put this market a bit ahead within the region,” Mr Lucas says.

From a career standpoint, data centres and their 20-year-plus life as assets could be an attractive option for many Australians looking for work outside emissions-intensive manufacturing or coal and gas extraction.

But it’s important that data centres work with the communities around them, and the work that supports them, Mr Lucas says.

“Not just building, hiring some people and bringing people in, but helping to develop those skills locally,” he explains.

“The other thing you’ll see is that typically you don’t see one data centre built and then that’s it, normally there’ll be follow-ons and that helps spur growth and develop jobs and skills.”

The centres will require construction workers and maintenance workers, as well as data engineers.

There must also be a large transmission build out, and backup generation and energy storage.

“Australia has a lot of those capabilities already – there are just some tweaks to apply that to data centres,” Mr Lucas says.

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