Climate forum hears about State’s precarious data centre agenda

Huge electricity consumers may compromise ‘small isolated grid’ and drive emissions

The Republic's new role as a specialist in data centre provision is raising serious environmental concerns, a conference discussing the outcome of the recent Cop26 agreements has been told.

Hannah Daly, lecturer in sustainable energy at University College Cork (UCC), said that while such infrastructure was essential to modern life, it was coming at a high cost.

“Even right now data centres account for about 1 per cent of global electricity demand but over 10 per cent of Irish demand. And that is projected to grow to up to 30 per cent,” she said.

“Ireland has become a specialist in data centres and these are huge, huge consumers of electricity and we have a fantastic grid . . . but it’s a small isolated grid.”


Addressing Thursday night’s Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) panel discussion on the Cop26 agenda, Dr Daly said some modelling anticipates Irish electricity demand could double by 2030.

“If you believe, which I do, that there is a limited extent to which we can grow renewables – we can only put in so many gigawatts [capacity] a year of wind and solar – then any additional demand from data centres or other large energy users is going to basically sap the renewables growth. It’s going to lead to more emissions – that could make the emissions targets out of reach.”

What to do about data centres?

Green Party MEP Ciarán Cuffe said a moratorium on planning permissions for data centres was a “bit simplistic”, but that they should use generated waste heat within local communities.

“I think they do need to provide their own on-site [power] back-up. And yes, that will be expensive and it may interfere with the business case but so be it,” he said. “We do have to curtail our voracious appetite for data.”

The online discussion also featured a synopsis of how the country’s power system will change and what it might look like by the end of the decade.

Robbie Aherne, head of future networks at EirGrid, said it will carry far more electricity than ever. Most of this will come from renewable sources including an anticipated 5,000 megawatts of offshore wind; an additional 1,300 megawatts of onshore wind; and 1,000 megawatts of solar power. They also estimate that about 500 megawatts of micro-generation will support the grid from a quarter of a million homes, farms and other buildings

“And at the same time our demand is going to increase by upwards of 50 per cent, which bucks international trends really. But it’s to facilitate large energy users like data centres, pharma, semi-conductor plants; that electrification of heat and transport,” he said.

Dr Daly noted that despite some disappointment regarding India’s commitments to reduce coal consumption, developed nations, including Ireland, must lead the way in phasing out fossil fuels.

“We always have to bring this back to Ireland and we are a developed country,” she said. “We have a huge impact on the climate on a per capita basis. If every country in the world, if every person in the world, had the same per capita emissions as we have had historically here the world would already have warmed to 3 degrees.”

*This article was amended on November 19th, 2021

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times