New measures on curbing data centres to be unveiled

Regulator to impose conditions on grid connection for big technology companies

Google data centre: Grid connections will in future be determined by ability to bring on “site dispatchable” power – gas-fired electricity that can be used on demand and deployed at the request of grid operators – or power storage mechanisms.

Google data centre: Grid connections will in future be determined by ability to bring on “site dispatchable” power – gas-fired electricity that can be used on demand and deployed at the request of grid operators – or power storage mechanisms.

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The owners of new data centres will have to provide their own emergency power supplies to gain access to the national grid, under fresh measures to ease pressure on the electricity network.

The new rules on grid connections include a requirement on future data centres to cut their consumption of power if required as part of efforts by grid operators to boost the security of supply.

They will be imposed on big technology companies by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities because of concern that surging data centre demand would lead to rolling power blackouts if their growth is not curtailed.

Such measures, to be unveiled within days, will apply to unsigned contracts for new grid connections.

They also include a requirement to assess the location of new data centres, which are heavy electricity-users, when deciding on a grid connection. That essentially means that new centres are unlikely to be in built in areas such as Dublin where the grid is heavily constrained already.

Deep anxiety

The move to curb data centres – buildings that house highly energy-intensive computer systems for storing internet and business data – reflects deep anxiety about the stability of the network as supply struggles to meet rising demand.

Connections will also be determined by their ability to provide “flexibility in demand” by reducing consumption from the grid when required through the use of their own power, a condition that means they would not have discretion on the question.

They would also have to commit to reduce consumption when requested to do so in times of system constraint or to support security of supply, a measure that implies they would have to cut demand from the grid even if their own supply was not available.

Such policies are highly sensitive for the Government, given the heavy presence in the State of tech giants such as Google, Amazon and Facebook that need data centres to run international businesses that function online.

Sectoral resistance

Data centre operators have already opposed some of new curbs. Cloud Infrastructure Ireland, a sectoral lobby group that includes Google and Amazon, said in a submission to the regulator during the summer that members’ strong preference was to invest in renewable power over dispatchable power.

The group also argued that proposals to determine grid access based on location “within a constrained region or unconstrained region” should be ranked as a low-priority criterion.

The new rules come with grid constraints projected to persist for years while new generation is developed. The regulator resolved in September to prolong using oil and coal power stations, compromising the State’s ability to meet climate targets.

In recent months, the problems were compounded by low wind speeds and the temporary closure of two big modern power stations for urgent repairs. EirGrid, operator of the grid, issued seven amber alerts in the past year as the system came under pressure..

With some 70 data centres now in the State, the sector has emerged as a huge driver of electricity demand. The sustained rise was the same as adding 140,000 new households to the grid in each of the last four years, spurring discussion on whether steps should to be taken to scale back the growth.

IDA Ireland, the inward investment agency, has said power system constraints should not lead to curbs on building data centres, arguing they are an integral part of the technology sector that employs about 140,000 people.

Last month, the agency called for action to avert the risk of blackouts, saying questions over power supplies were “unhelpful” to efforts to market the State as a global business hub.

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