Growth of AI creates 'unprecedented' demand for global data centres

Increased need for data storage prompts real estate investors and developers to uncover additional, sustainable sources of energy.

As the global economy continues to rapidly adopt Artificial Intelligence (AI), infrastructure to support these systems must keep pace. Consumers and businesses are expected to generate twice as much data in the next five years as all the data created over the past 10 years. This growth presents both an opportunity and a challenge for real estate investors, developers and operators. JLL’s Data Centers 2024 Global Outlook explores how data centers need to be designed, operated and sourced to meet the evolving needs of the global economy.

With the growing demands of AI, data center storage capacity is expected to grow from 10.1 zettabytes (ZB) in 2023 to 21.0 ZB in 2027, for a five-year compound annual growth rate of 18.5%[1]. Not only will this increased storage generate a need for more data centers, but generative AI’s greater energy requirements – ranging from 300 to 500+ megawatts – will also require more energy efficient designs and locations. The need for more power will require data center operators to increase efficiency and work with local governments to find sustainable energy sources to support data center needs.

“As the data centre industry grapples with power challenges and the urgent need for sustainable energy, strategic site selection becomes paramount in ensuring operational scalability and meeting environmental goals,” said Jonathan Kinsey, EMEA Lead and Global Chair, Data Centre Solutions, JLL. “In many cases, existing grid infrastructure will struggle to support the global shift to electrification and the expansion of critical digital infrastructure, making it increasingly important for real estate professionals and developers to work hand in hand with partners to secure adequate future power.”

Sustainable Data Center Design and Operations Solutions

AI-specialized data centers look different than conventional facilities and may require operators to plan, design and allocate power resources based on the type of data processed or stage of generative AI development. As the amount of computing equipment installed and operated is expected to continue increasing with AI demand, heat generation will surpass current standards. Since cooling typically accounts for roughly 40% of an average data center’s electricity use, operators are shifting from traditional air-based cooling methods to liquid cooling. Providers have shown that liquid cooling boasts significant power reductions – as high as 90% – while improving capability and space requirements.

“In addition to location and design considerations, data center operators are starting to explore alternative power sourcing strategies for onsite power generation including small modular reactors (SMRs), hydrogen fuel cells and natural gas.” said Andy Cvengros, Managing Director, U.S. Data Center Markets, JLL. “With power grids becoming effectively tapped out and transformers having more than three-year lead times, operators will need to innovate.”

Global Investment in Data Centers and Power

To support these requirements, critical changes need to be made across the globe to increase power usage.

• In Europe, one-third of the grid infrastructure is over 40 years old, requiring an estimated €584 billion of investment by 2030 to meet the European Union’s green goals.

• In the United States, meeting energy transition goals to upgrade the grid and feed more renewable energy into the power supply will require an estimated $2 trillion.

• Data centers’ rapid growth is also putting pressure on limited energy resources in many countries. In Singapore, for example, the government enacted a moratorium to temporarily halt construction in certain regions to carefully review new data center proposals and ensure alignment with the country’s sustainability goals.

The global energy conundrum presents both opportunities and challenges to commercial real estate leaders with a stake in the data center sector. Generative AI will continue to fuel demand for specialized and redesigned data centers, and developers and operators who can provide sustainable computing power will reap the rewards of the data-intense digital economy. 

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