Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has called for a “huge expansion” in wind power to tackle growing constraints on the electricity network because of surging demand from big tech data centres.
Data centres have been criticised for putting the national grid under acute pressure, but Mr Varadkar – who is Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment – blamed a “problem of inadequate supply”.
In a submission to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) in recent weeks, officials in his department have said data centres and industry should not become a scapegoat for challenges on the national electricity grid.
”The solution is a huge expansion of renewable energy production, especially off-shore wind, as well as interconnection with France. This can be a win-win-win scenario,” Mr Varadkar told The Irish Times.
His department’s submission came after the regulator said data centres had put very heavy constraints on the grid, warning of “rolling blackouts” if the connection system for such centres is not changed.
Ireland is now home to about 70 data centres, buildings that house energy-intensive computer systems that store Internet and business data. The sustained rise in demand from the sector was the same as adding 140,000 new households to the grid in each of the last four years.
The risk to electricity supply is a hot topic after Government moves during the summer, later abandoned, to procure emergency generation because of ongoing repairs at two big power stations.
The regulator wants special measures to prioritise how access to the grid is determined for data centres. However, the Tánaiste’s remarks in favour of wind power back big tech demands for renewable energy to confront the problem.
“Ireland is going to see a huge increase in demand for electricity in the coming years. It won’t just come from data centres,” Mr Varadkar said in reply to a question on the regulator’s review of grid access.
“Electric cars, electric heating systems and big industries shifting away from oil and gas are going to require a huge amount of extra electricity supply as we ramp up climate action. It’s wrong to see this as a problem of excess demand.”
Officials in Mr Varadkar’s department insisted to the regulator that data centres were a core part of the digital economy, and said policy should facilitate sustainable investment in the sector.
They are also understood to have expressed concern about potentially serious implications for investment arising from the constraints, as well as for Ireland’s reputation and competitiveness.
Mirroring the regulator’s stance, however, they said a “do nothing” approach would not be sensible and argued against a moratorium on new connections.
Instead officials said connection policy should recognise a “positive role” for data centres in developing flexible demand for power and services like on-site generation. They also support agreements in which data centres would procure renewable power directly from generators.
The CRU’s review of data centres continues. However, tech giants have already argued against key measures suggested by the regulator, dismissing the suggestion that they themselves should invest in natural gas power generation.
Cloud Infrastructure Ireland, a new lobby group which acts for groups such as Google and Amazon, has said its members were willing to invest in new generation but strongly favoured renewable sources. Plans to determine grid access based on location “within a constrained region or unconstrained region” should be a low priority, it said.
Mr Varadkar said increased renewable power use would lead industry and households to buy “Irish-generated electricity often from Irish semi-states rather than importing oil and gas from abroad from companies owned by other states”.