Eirgrid chief backs case for review of data centre policy in Ireland

Centres projected to require a third of Ireland’s generated energy within a decade

Data centres, which consume large amounts of electricity, will be critical to a thriving Irish economy and to modern lifestyles in coming years, but a policy review is needed to evaluate their role backed by a new regulatory framework, the chief executive of Eirgrid Mark Foley has said.

Currently responsible for 1.58 per cent of Ireland’s carbon emissions, data centres are projected to use 29 per cent of Ireland’s total energy by 2028.

Eirgrid, which provides the electricity transmission system on the island of Ireland, has warned that by 2026 the twin demands of data centres and electric cars could exceed Ireland's current energy supply.

Speaking at a webinar on renewable energy hosted by Green MEP Ciarán Cuffe, Mr Foley suggested people needed to reflect on how important data has become in their lives.

The world was coming out of 15 months of working from home with Eirgrid, for instance, having a staff of 600 people all working remotely, he noted.

“We are in the middle of the biggest social and work experiment in human history, and technology has allowed us to get on with the job in the most extraordinary and emphatic and, indeed, surprising way,” he said.

“It’s a fact of modern life that data is ubiquitous in term of our business, in terms of how we communicate, our social lives, our entertainment; it’s everywhere.”

Data centres, however, “are big consumers of power,” and, in that light, he believed “the policy regime around data centres definitely needs a further review, considering where we are now, and where we need to get to”.

This was required to ensure there was “a clear, rational policy pathway for the next 10 years about what Ireland is prepared to accommodate”, he said. The quid pro quo was what data centres were prepared to give back in being accommodated on the transmission system that Eirgrid provides, and in the broader ecosystem, Mr Foley added.

He underlined the need to start with the premise data is “a reality and vital part of a thriving Irish economy” that expects to grow strongly in the next decade, and underlined Eirgrid was not in the business of stopping that progress but asked “what can we do better because they are big consumers of power?”

In that light, he said “the policy regime around data centres definitely needs a further review”– notably on the role of data centres in supporting green energy, and in bringing solutions on capacity in power generation.

There may be need for some degree of hierarchy, he suggested; “does everybody get to play? Or should we be concentrating on those that are more strategic to the economy, and less so around data centres as a speculative play. So there’s some very fundamental questions I think need to be asked at this juncture”.

Total demand for electricity is expected to increase by up to 50 per cent by 2030 and “people are right to ask for a more sophisticated policy and regulatory framework than what we have had to date,” Mr Foley said.