Online data use needs to be viewed as ‘finite’, academics say

Committee hears call for moratorium on new data centres while more alternative energy sourced

At present, data centres use 11 per cent of Ireland’s electricty grid capacity, but this is due to rise to 28 per cent by 2030. Photograph: iStock

At present, data centres use 11 per cent of Ireland’s electricty grid capacity, but this is due to rise to 28 per cent by 2030. Photograph: iStock

 

People have to start regarding their online data as finite and consider how much they need to use in a similar manner to fossil fuels and single-use plastics, two environmental academics have told an Oireachtas Committee.

Prof James Carton, of Dublin City University, and Dr Patrick Bresnihan, of Maynooth University, told the Oireachtas committee on environment and climate change that personal responsibility was needed when it came to data storage.

Dr Carton said people would need to manage and delete into the future to conserve energy “with so many connected devices coming on line over the next decade”.

Dr Bresnihan added: “Do we accept unquestionably that data demand and usage is going to expand exponentially and ineluctably for ever? Do we accept that point or do we think about it like single-use plastic or oil or emissions?

“Strong environmental campaigns shifted views on whether oil should be taken out of the ground and burned. I can see something very similar happening with data,” he said.

“Our consumption of data is not natural, or inevitable. It’s very much linked to the business models of online platforms like Netflix, Twitter, Instagram.Their business models are geared around us consuming more data.”

The academics were speaking about the proliferation of data centres in Ireland, which have become major consumers of energy and water.

There are more than 70 data centres in Ireland with around 25 per cent of all centres in Europe now based in Dublin. At present, they use 11 per cent of Ireland’s electricity grid capacity, but this is due to rise to 28 per cent by 2030.

Green light

Dr Bresnihan told the committee that on current official estimations, if all the data centres being proposed for Ireland were to be given the green light, they would use 70 per cent of Ireland’s grid capacity by 2030.

Dr Carton said people need to think socially about why they were keeping more of their data online.

He and the other two speakers - the third was Professor Kyla Tienhaara, from Queen’s University, Ontario, in Canada - emphasised that part of the solution was using less energy, not looking for new ways to find alternative sources to meet an ever-expanding energy need.

Dr Tienhaara said that some alternative forms of energy had an impact on other humans, with earth minerals used for renewable technology sometimes extracted under “horrible conditions”.

“We have to look at ways of decreasing energy usage. We cannot have more and more ad infinitum,” she said.

Dr Bresnihan argued for a moratorium on data centres, saying that like Singapore - which has imposed one - Ireland should wait until it has sufficient sources of alternative energy before allowing more.

He agreed with Sinn Féin Senator Lynn Boylan that it was plausible the expansion of data centres could facilitate a proposed Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Shannon.