The Irish Times view on data centres: public needs must come first

Concerns have been raised about why Ireland – an island with an outdated energy grid still mostly reliant on fossil fuel-based energy generation – should be eager to keep adding more of these energy-draining behemoths

For years, concerns have been raised about why Ireland – an island with an outdated energy grid still mostly reliant on fossil fuel-based energy generation – should be eager to keep adding more energy-draining data centres. Photograph:Colin Keegan/ Collins

For years, concerns have been raised about why Ireland – an island with an outdated energy grid still mostly reliant on fossil fuel-based energy generation – should be eager to keep adding more energy-draining data centres. Photograph:Colin Keegan/ Collins

 

Is Ireland reaching an untenable position with its ever-expanding numbers of data centres? These giant, air-cooled warehouses each contain thousands of computer servers storing the data that underlies the daily computer-based interactions between businesses, organisations and individuals. Everything from the content of an Instagram post to a business invoice sits in a data centre somewhere – often here in Ireland, a world centre for data centres.

All those servers create a large demand for electricity, but this pales in comparison to the energy required to keep the servers from overheating the space they occupy. That combined demand means a single data centre is a massive energy drain, and a collection of them, such as Amazon plans in Mulhuddart, requires the electricity equivalent of a small city.

And yet, such facilities employ few people, perhaps 30 to 50 individuals, in facility maintenance roles. Most jobs are in short-term facility construction work. But the ongoing energy demands of each centre are a steep price to pay for a brief construction boost, then a few dozen ongoing facilities maintenance positions.

For years, concerns have been raised about why Ireland – an island with an outdated energy grid still mostly reliant on fossil fuel-based energy generation – should be eager to keep adding more of these energy-draining behemoths.

The Commission for Regulations of Utilities (CRU) warned recently that the sector now places significant pressure on the national grid, with demand so great that, unaddressed, it may lead to rolling blackouts across the country. National grid operator EirGrid – having already warned in 2017 that data centres were stressing Dublin’s electricity supply – told the CRU that data centres were “having a major impact on the Irish electricity system currently and into the foreseeable future”. Already the sector uses seven per cent of Ireland’s energy production, and demand is expected to double in the next five years, according to an industry report from Host in Ireland.

While the data centre industry promotes its shift towards renewable energy sources such as wind, the CRU cautions that the State’s move to embrace less-predictable renewables introduces less resilience in the grid. The industry and its supporters claim data centres underpin the economic benefits to Ireland in having multinationals based here, but this contradicts the very premise of cloud computing advanced by those multinationals – that data location is irrelevant as data can be held and managed in centres anywhere.

With 70 centres here already – a 25 per cent increase on last year – the State has offered no public plan for managing the industry’s growth. It would be easy to conclude that the national grid is being shaped to prioritise and accommodate data centres rather than the needs of the Irish people.

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