The Irish Times view on curbing the growth of data centres: a system under strain

Further unchecked expansion could expose Ireland to the threat of blackouts

The system struggles to keep up with rising demand as it is. Photograph: Alan Betson

The system struggles to keep up with rising demand as it is. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Moves to curb the growth of data centres are a stark illustration of their undoubted role in adding to the strains on the national electricity grid. The sector includes tech giants Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, which have big Irish operations and an ever-growing need to store and process data for online business. After relentless expansion there are legitimate concerns that further unchecked growth could expose Ireland to the threat of blackouts, an unacceptable risk both for citizens and the wider economy.

Now regulators have resolved that the ability of new data centres to deploy their own emergency power must be a key factor in deciding whether they gain access to the grid. Location must also be assessed, meaning new centres are unlikely in areas like Dublin where the network is constrained.

The Commission for Regulation of Utilities imposed these conditions on EirGrid, which runs the grid, in the face of pressure from data centre operators. The regime calls specifically for on-site dispatchable generation and/or storage. Dispatchable power can be deployed on demand. It includes gas-fired generation that can be switched on any time and excludes wind power, available only when the wind blows and therefore less reliable in an emergency. Cloud Infrastructure Ireland (CII), the main industry lobby group, opposed backup dispatchable power over renewables. It also resisted location restrictions, which, on the face of it, will curtail the expansion of existing centres.

That these rules come weeks after separate but related measures to prolong coal and coal generation to mitigate supply risks on the grid is telling. Such moves undermine binding climate targets. But they reflect the unavoidable fact that the system struggles to keep up with rising demand as it is, never mind the requirements of future data centres. Ireland badly needs more standby gas generation, cleaner than coal or oil, just as it needs more renewables. As an alternative to putting supplies in peril, data centres will have to play their own part.

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