Data centres get a bad press because of the huge quantities of electricity used to process the vast amounts of information created by an increasingly digitally-connected world.
Though they serve global needs, they can be powered only by the electricity grid that is physically closest to them, and Ireland – increasingly popular with those who build data centres – is now facing the pressures they cause.
Data is often described as the 21st century’s high-tech fuel. Unlike oil, as it has no physical form, it is regarded as having no environmental impact, but this is far from reality.
Beside electricity and gas, each centre uses 500,000 to 5 million litres of water a day. One, in Dublin, uses 4.5 million litres a day roughly 20 days a year. Simply put, each consumes enough to supply a large town.
The International Energy Agency says data centres today use 1 per cent of all of the world's electricity, contributing to 0.3 per cent of global emissions. And this figure will only rise.
Technology firms are not indifferent, however. Many have pledged to go 100 per cent “green”, and, equally, they commit to reaching “net-zero” faster than others. Some in Ireland have bought their own wind farms.
Privately, Ministers believe that the Government’s upcoming budget will limit the uninhibited expansion of centres, though Friends of the Earth argues the existing ones threaten to derail the State’s CO2 pledges.
Grid operator EirGrid is due to report shortly on options for the orderly construction of data centres while scaling up the State’s power system to cater for 70 per cent renewables by 2030.
Falling back, however, on Moneypoint’s coal-fired station, or Tarbert’s oil-fired plant – both are due to be taken out of service by 2025 – is incompatible with climate targets, especially just weeks ahead of the COP26 global summit.
Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan has admitted that "some" fossil fuels will be needed to back up renewable power "when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining", he said adding: "We always knew we were going to do this."
The solutions are obvious, say renewable energy companies: wind farms must be built faster, many of them offshore, while the rollout of solar must accelerate, too.
Signals for the markets from the Government, including support for battery storage to save power until when it is most needed, must urgently happen, too, they say.
Auctions for onshore and offshore renewable energy have been postponed until late 2022 – which has been taken as a bad sign by an industry that makes its plans in years or decades, not months.
Ireland may face electricity and gas price hikes unless more is done to strengthen the grid, to harness offshore winds and improve connections to Britain and other parts of Europe, says Prof Andrew Keane, director of UCD Energy Institute.
Such a move would make the State an energy exporter, not an importer. “With the ongoing energy crisis across Europe and fuel prices rising, we need to take action now, before it is too late,” he adds.