State wants to attract data centres but is unsure about the gas which powers them

Apple and Fortress Energy are proceeding with controversial planning applications which highlight contradictions in State policy

Server cabinets on the data centre floor at the Telecity Data Storage Centre in the North West Business Park, Ballycoolin, Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

Server cabinets on the data centre floor at the Telecity Data Storage Centre in the North West Business Park, Ballycoolin, Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

News that both Apple and US group Fortress Energy are separately proceeding with controversial planning applications is a coincidence, but it highlights contradictions in Government policy that need reconciling.

At the weekend it emerged that Apple intends asking Galway County Council to extend planning permission for an €850 million data centre that the tech giant shelved in 2018 amid multiple objections, some based on its energy consumption. A legal challenge brought by locals failed in the Supreme Court after the iPhone maker mothballed the project.

Last week Fortress Energy said it would reapply to An Bord Pleanála for a power plant and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the Shannon Estuary. Friends of the Irish Environment succeeded in getting the courts to overturn a previous grant of permission for a terminal there last year.

Fortress’s move followed Energy Minister Eamon Ryan’s declaration that it would be inappropriate for LNG projects to proceed here pending the outcome of a review of Irish energy needs.

He fears that an LNG plant would mean imports of gas produced by fracking, a controversial drilling method opposed by environmentalists. In fact, conventional drilling provides much of the world’s LNG. Gulf state Qatar is the world’s single biggest supplier, providing 107 billion cubic metres in 2019.

Any energy review is likely to conclude that we will continue to need gas. The fuel generates 60 per cent of the electricity we use. Even as we increase the use of renewable power, we will still need it to anchor the system, particularly as electricity demand continues growing.

One reason for that is the proliferation of data centres, mainly close to Dublin. Fears expressed by national grid operator Eirgrid about the pressure these projects put on electricity supplies to the capital prompted the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities to begin a consultation on the problem. That could see the regulator demanding that future data centres be located away from Dublin, potentially good news for Apple.

Multinationals build data centres here because the State encourages it. That means more demand for electricity, which in turn requires more sources of gas, including, potentially, LNG.

Opposing increased fossil fuel use on the one hand while pursuing a policy that requires more of it on the other is counter-intuitive.

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