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Poor planning for data centres will lead to unprecedented demands on the national grid, says Billy MacInnes

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7 October 2021 | 0

Imagine if the Irish government decided to embark on a policy of attracting European incineration plants to be built here in the name of investment and jobs. To do this, along with tax incentives, it would guarantee that wherever the incineration plants were located, it would ensure there were dedicated transport connections to those sites. Furthermore, the general public would not be allowed to use those roads.

In the name of jobs and investment, the Irish government would happily agree to take waste shipped from all over Europe to be incinerated here. EU countries would be understandably overjoyed that a fellow EU member had agreed to take responsibility for their waste disposal and assume the environmental cost for doing so. They would have all the benefits and Ireland would bear all the cost.

That doesn’t sound like a very good deal, does it? Particularly when you consider that the tax incentives and inducements, including building the required transport links, could end up costing more than the jobs the incineration plants might attract.

 

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Many people might balk if they lived in a world where, say, as many as 70 incineration plants were approved to be built in Ireland with the prospect of more to come. That’s an extreme analogy for the current situation regarding data centres in Ireland, except no one has objected to them. Until now at least.

The present policy of the Irish government to encourage the siting of data centres here has a number of unwelcome consequences. If all the data centres proposed are allowed they will account for 25-30% (one estimate suggests up to 70%) of capacity on the national grid. To put that in perspective, only 2% of electricity is consumed by data centres worldwide. EirGrid is also legally obliged to agree to any requests from the data centre industry when it comes to connecting to the grid.

The government highlighted the elevated significance of its data centre policy in 2018 by setting out plans to “amend the planning process for data centres over certain size thresholds to reclassify them as strategic infrastructure development which will streamline the decision-making process”.

As for their effects on the electricity grid, the 2018 government statement on The Role Of Data Centres in Ireland’s Enterprise Strategy advanced the stunning argument that data centres “can provide benefits to the electricity system due to their typically consistent, as opposed to ‘peaky’ demand profile which can provide system support at night”. It claimed data centres “were a potential provider of system services and demand response which is beneficial to Ireland’s energy system”.

Nevertheless, the statement did acknowledge that “data centres pose considerable challenges to the future planning and operation of Ireland’s power system” but believed the government could “take steps to mitigate them so that Ireland optimises the benefits that these strategically important investments bring”.

Power stations

In another twist, it suggested that data centres would help accelerate the use of renewable power, stating “developers of data centres place an emphasis on how energy requirements can be met from renewable sources, and data centres will likely play a role in creating a market for renewable energy development”.

The government has deployed a number of supplementary arguments to support its data centre strategy claiming, for example, that the shift to 70% renewables will fix the issue of rising demand from data centres. Does that really make sense? If data centre demand rises from 11% to as high as 30% by 2030, all that will happen is data centres will take a bigger share of the renewable power Ireland generates.

Another bizarre defence of the policy is that data centres in Ireland enable remote working. In a recent Dail debate, Climate Minister Eamon Ryan made the claim that “data centres enable remote working, cutting transport carbon emissions as is so clearly evident over the past 18 months”.

This may not be quite as convincing as he thinks considering the vast majority of data centres here service the European market, rather than just Ireland. It’s why Ireland is the biggest data centre hub in Europe. Domestic demand would not, after all, justify such an accolade. In reality, we might be better served from a climate and energy perspective if workers in Ireland were able to work remotely using data centres based somewhere else.

Surprisingly, the role of data centres in creating a market for renewable energy development did not seem to be at the forefront a couple of weeks ago when a spokesman for Minister Ryan stated “increasing the number of facilities [data centres] in Ireland cannot jeopardise the State’s target of reducing carbon emissions by 51% by 2030”.

That was a fairly sharp change in tone from a few days earlier, when he had claimed: “If we locate [data centres] correctly and have the grid correctly connected to them, we will be able to run data centres efficiently with low carbon.” In an interview with the Business Post in July he had optimistically argued Ireland could be a “test bed” for decarbonising the data centre industry.

The shift in tone suggests there might be problems in getting data centres to locate and connect to the grid in places where they could be run efficiently with low carbon.

Anyway, here we are in October 2021 and no one in government is willing to guarantee unequivocally that there won’t be any blackouts. Taoiseach Michael Martin could only say: “We’ll do our best.” Minister Ryan admitted Ireland was in a “very tight situation for the next two to three, four years” and Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said he was “confident” Ireland could “avoid blackouts or brownouts this winter, but nobody can absolutely guarantee that”.

EirGrid chief executive Mark Foley has been more bullish, telling TDs and senators: “I think people can sleep in their beds at night and be satisfied they will have electricity.” He revealed that if there was an emergency, data centre operators told him they would switch their backup generators on.

Dark times ahead

Opposition and environmental groups are starting to ask questions of a “strategic infrastructure development” which, they believe, places such a heavy burden on the country’s power requirements. In a newspaper advertisement opposing a proposed data centre in Ennis, County Clare, Uplift claimed it would require the equivalent power used by all homes in Clare, Kerry and Limerick combined, use nearly half the water needed by Ennis, cause power blackouts and “contribute massively to the climate crisis”.

In June, People Before Profit introduced a bill seeking to ban new data centres.“Real climate action can’t happen if we are simultaneously planning to have over half of any increase in renewable energy swallowed up by mega data centres by 2030,” stated TD Brid Smith.

The Social Democrats have also called for an immediate moratorium on the construction of data centres. In the same Dail debate where Ryan spoke of data centres enabling remote working, the Social Democrats climate spokesperson, Jennifer Whitmore, accused the government of “blindly supporting the rapid expansion of the sector, without placing any demands or responsibilities on them”.

Minister Ryan retorted that the government was “not ignoring this issue. It is centre stage in our plans to manage our energy systems”.

So that’s alright then. Except such reassurances may sound a little hollow given Whitmore’s accusation in an article in thejournal.ie that the government “has not carried out even a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis”. She added that “the government’s flippant attitude to this escalating crisis is bizarre and bewildering”.

That could become something of an issue when you consider that, more or less at the same time, Aoife MacEvilly, chairperson of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU), told an Oireachtas Committee that “electricity demand growth from this sector [data centres] is unlike anything Ireland has seen in the past 100 years”.

She added that data centre demand was “connecting to the grid more quickly and easily than it has proven possible to deliver the supporting transmission and generation infrastructure”. Don’t forget, EirGrid is legally obliged to make connections for data centres, irrespective of where they are and regardless of existing demand for power in the areas where they are located.

Still, if things do go wrong and we find ourselves sitting in the dark, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that, according to EirGrid’s Foley, our “strategic development infrastructure” will be able to use its backup generators to ensure someone in Brittany or somewhere else in Europe can watch a funny video about climate change on YouTube.

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