Net Results: Data centres need to power down their energy requirements

Why are the State and its investment agencies so eager to keep luring these large-scale, big energy, low employMent projects?

Aerial view of the site of the proposed Apple data centre at Athenry, Co Galway, that did not proceed

Aerial view of the site of the proposed Apple data centre at Athenry, Co Galway, that did not proceed

 

Data centres are big business in Ireland. But should the State demand more in how they are built and how they draw down energy? Especially when one proposed Dublin data-centre development would eventually have the energy demands of a city the size of Galway?

Ireland already has data centres at scale. It is currently home to 46 centres – ranging from dedicated facilities owned by big tech companies, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon, to co-located centres where companies of many sizes share infrastructure.

Most are concentrated around Dublin, although the highest profile of them all is – was – Apple’s proposed data centre for Athenry that was axed by the company after it apparently became tired of wading through tortuous planning appeals.

That centre went to Denmark instead, a rival European cool-climate region that also suits data centres, with their requirement to endlessly cool down tall racks of heat-generating servers. The more moderate the climate, the lower the (still significant) cost to keep those servers happily chilled out.

Growth area

Data centres remain a big growth area here. A report last April, produced by Host in Ireland in association with Bitpower, noted that €1.1 billion invested in such centres this year will bring total data centre investment to €5.7 billion by year’s end.

It predicted that, by 2021, that sum would reach €9 billion.

A lot of that build cost – which runs to hundreds of millions of euro per centre – goes to creating the infrastructure to run the servers and cool them down. An average centre might use 10 to 20 megawatts (MW) of power, while Amazon’s proposed 223,000 sq ft facility will need 35MW.

But the company has bigger plans, proposing seven more for a data-centre complex of about 205MW on the Mulhuddart site. Such a huge conglomeration would suck up the energy equivalent of a small Irish city. If the full eight-centre project is realised by 2026, Amazon has acknowledged it would use about 4.4 per cent of the State’s entire energy capacity.

 Whether Ireland’s national grid can accommodate ever more of these energy hogs has been the subject of years of debate, especially as they don’t offer much employment once they are built. Even the initial, huge Amazon data centre in Mulhuddart will only employ about 30 people once built — and most are not in highly paid jobs, but facility maintenance.

Construction

So why are the State and its investment agencies so eager to keep luring these large-scale, big-energy, low-employment projects that take up the land space of many football fields yet, individually, only employ as many people as a large supermarket?

One reason is the construction jobs they bring. The many months needed to erect a data centre will keep hundreds of builders busy. But then the jobs are gone.

Another, probably the main, reason is that the marquee tech names involved get paraded around. Look! We’ve got Apple! Amazon! Microsoft! Facebook!

But wait, we already have them doing high-value stuff that employs thousands. Why do we need names on data centres?

There’s a serious and sickening degree of irony involved in giving supports, inducements, and a huge national energy grid hit to tech companies to:

1) hoover up huge State-owned green sites in regions that badly need housing and jobs;

2) temporarily employ low-skilled construction workers and then;

3) longer term, hire a couple of dozen modestly-paid site maintenance people, often on gruelling 12-hour shifts.

 And it’s ludicrous that an island nation dependent on importing 96 per cent of the fossil fuels that still generate almost half of Irish electricity, and buying in 8 per cent of its electricity from the UK, keeps spurring on development of low-skill, very low-employment, energy hog data centres.

Greener

If Ireland is going to continue to allow expansion of its data-centre industry, it should be a firm requirement – not an aspiration – for them to be far greener than they are.

Some at least, are already innovative in utilising green energy sources. But this should be a requirement, baked in to the build plans, not an add-on offered by some companies.

And what about all the waste heat produced by data centres, especially clusters of data centres? Technology already exists to make use of the waste heat – Amazon’s Seattle headquarters is designed to utilise waste heat from a neighbouring (non-Amazon) data centre, for example. Surely data-centre sites should no longer be disparate one-offs, but earmarked for co-development with large-employment offices or other facilities that can reuse waste heat.

If the State is serious in pursuing its stated green-energy goals and moving off fossil fuel dependency, then it must take a hard look at its love affair with data centres. At the very least, it must restructure inducements and subsidies to require (and support) both green-energy use and production.

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