Let’s not block progress by launching a crippling campaign against data

Opinion: Data centres are supporting Ireland’s economic and green future

 

Thirteen years ago this week one of the world’s biggest investment banks, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy. It heralded the start of the Great Recession. Not since the 1980s had Ireland’s economy been pummelled so ferociously.

However, we emerged – thanks to the great work of organisations like IDA Ireland – as a technology capital of Europe. A new digital era was reviving Ireland and transforming it into one of the world’s greatest economies for foreign direct investment. It spurred a new wave of entrepreneurism that has made our nation stronger than ever.

The promise of technology is so universally accepted that its benefits shouldn’t need stating. It forms the backbone of the European Green Deal, the newly-passed European law on greenhouse gas emissions and the European Commission’s push to turn Europe into an AI hub through its Europe Fit For The Digital Age plan.

Clearly our governments recognise that technology – which we have so heavily relied upon throughout the pandemic – will be the key to economic prosperity and climate action.

Meaningful digital innovation must be embraced, and that means supporting enterprises that are managing increasing volumes of data. This requires interconnecting infrastructure that allows economic and green innovation to thrive. It requires the building of data centres in Ireland to continue to be prioritised, not curtailed.

But how can we do this given the existing burden on the electricity grid? And can the growth of the data centre industry be done in an environmentally-sustainable way?

Grid demand

Currently Ireland’s data centres account for 11 per cent of grid capacity. They did not cause the serious issues we are seeing with grid capacity: under-investment did.

Despite year-on-year growth in grid demand there has been a severe lack of investment in capacity and support for renewable projects. As a result we have an electricity grid that is not fit for purpose. Last year approximately 12 per cent of wind energy was lost because the grid was unable to cope with the volume of electricity being produced by wind farms.

If we are to have a secure, stable and sustainable supply of electricity then we must have a grid that properly supports wind and solar energy.

Certainly progress is being made and last year 43 per cent of electricity from the grid did come from renewable sources, exceeding the Government’s goal of 40 per cent green generation by 2020. Still, more needs to be done if we are to reach our national target of 70 per cent by 2030.

And yet our second onshore renewables auction, RESS-2, has been delayed until next year despite a previous promise of annual auctions. As grid demand continues to rise we simply cannot afford to take a gap year.

Research carried out by Host in Ireland anticipates that by 2026 some 19 per cent of electricity generated on the grid will be consumed by data centres, up from the current 11 per cent, but data centre growth is expected to double.

Data centres are becoming more energy efficient, in part thanks to advancements in building technology. They are also home to the cloud. In March IDC predicted that between 2021 and 202, cloud computing could prevent the emission of more than one billion metric tons of carbon-dioxide.

It also noted that large-scale data centres actually help to reduce CO2 emissions because they are more efficient than individual businesses’ on-site data storage solutions due to better power capacity management, optimised cooling and more power-efficient servers.

So, to curb the building of data centres – therefore forcing businesses to host their own data – would be both impractical and unsustainable.

Climate goals

Last month the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report intensified conversations around climate change and the need for action from governments and industries. Data, and the tools and services that it creates, are a critical part of the report’s recommendations.

Described as the “next public utility” in a report published by Barclays this month, data centres will be central to the solution. This is underpinned by the EU Climate Neutral Data Centre Operator Pact; a pledge from the majority of Europe’s biggest data centre and cloud infrastructure providers to be climate neutral by 2030.

The pledge will help enterprises that rely on data centres to reach their emissions goals too. Data centres are facilitating the adoption of renewable energy through their own onsite initiatives, green power purchase agreements and direct investments in renewable energy generation.

In Ireland we have several issues peaking at the same time: grid capacity, generating capacity, climate action law, renewable targets and the availability of new renewable energy at scale. There is no immediate solution, but we can manage these issues with the right leadership, focus and investment.

We can lead Europe in our ability to generate renewable energy, and the success of this will depend largely on how we can collaborate. Government, utility and energy providers and enterprises must address the challenge together rather than resort to a knee-jerk reaction against an industry that so much of our future depends upon.

Economic growth

In the wake of the last recession it was often said that Ireland was punching above its weight when it came to the technology sector. That wasn’t the case then and it isn’t the case now. Technology is in our DNA, and it is driving Ireland’s current and future economic growth.

Not only that, it is driving real solutions for our planet and energy supply too. That is because technology and the environment are not mutually exclusive: they have become interdependent. Let’s not block progress by launching a crippling campaign against data.

Maurice Mortell is managing director for Ireland at data centre group Equinix, and its sustainability lead in EMEA

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