Data centres should use zero-emissions electricity when grid faces high demand, experts say

Restrictions on high energy users necessary to avoid shortages, say MaREI researchers

‘Matching high energy users’ demand with zero emissions power would significantly reduce the emissions impact while also reducing stress on the grid at time of high demand.’ Photograph: iStock

‘Matching high energy users’ demand with zero emissions power would significantly reduce the emissions impact while also reducing stress on the grid at time of high demand.’ Photograph: iStock

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New large electricity users and data centres should only be allowed connect to the national grid if they meet their own electricity requirements with zero emissions electricity when power supplies are under severe stress, according to leading energy experts at the MaREI research centre in University College Cork, Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir and Dr Paul Deane.

They should be able to do this, the pair say, even when there is insufficient wind or solar generation.

As the country faces into inevitable power shortages in the face of escalating demand, especially over the coming winter, this restriction on heavy power users would relieve heightened demand over coming years, they say.

Writing in The Irish Times, they note the issue of data centres “is becoming a polarised debate with binary preferences – ie permit or do not permit – coming to the fore” when applying their proposal could relieve pressure points while ensuring security of supply.

Several data centres are already contracting wind farms to supply their electricity on an annual basis via corporate power purchase agreements, they add. “But matching this demand 24 hours a day 7 days a week with zero emissions power would significantly reduce the emissions impact while also reducing stress on the grid at time of high demand.”

On short-term risk to supply disruptions this winter – highlighted by the national grid operator Eirgrid – there are a number of key steps that require urgent attention, they warn.

All stops should be pulled out to get two gas-fired power stations in Whitegate and Huntstown back on line, while ensuring as many as possible “demand response options” are put in place “to manage times when electricity can be reduced or cut for specific purposes, in a planned way”.

Supply

In addition, moves to accelerate wind and solar energy capacity growth to increase electricity supply should be pursued, suggest the scientists who are based at the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for energy, climate and marine.

If necessary, existing generation plants that were being scaled back should be reintroduced, they add – this is already happening for with Moneypoint coal-fired power station.

The “flexible and responsive role” that natural gas plays in Irish energy systems has been key in ensuring the resilient supply of electricity when required, they underline.

This will also be essential as Ireland transitions to an energy system with increased electrification of heat and transport, coupled with increasing levels of renewable energy. Though it is a fossil fuel generating carbon emissions, gas has its part to play in enabling robust solutions to be put in place, they believe, “to ensure continued energy system resilience”.

They identify two key areas of projected growth in demand; arising from using electricity “for things we generally use oil or gas for – ie transport (electric vehicles) and heating (heat pumps) as part of our climate action strategy” and increasing numbers of data centres “to meet growing data flow demands arising from increased usage of cloud services by citizens and businesses”.