More evidence of years of disconnected inward investment policy and national energy planning, with prioritisation of corporates over citizens, arrived by careening clown car this week.
On Monday, it was revealed that the State’s energy regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU), wants to impose “peak tariffs” on large industrial users of electricity to pressure companies to reduce use when winter supply is tight.
Ireland’s inward investment agency, IDA Ireland, hit back, fretting such plans will increase “clients’ concerns around security of energy supply”. As the CRU readies for a formal consultation process on its proposed plans, the IDA, ever the corporate lobbyist, will be pushing back.
Then, right on mirthless cue, Eirgrid was forced this week to issue electricity demand “system alerts” over several days in the midst of ageing power plant shutdowns, an energy supply-constraining war that means other countries have less surplus to sell to us, and lack of wind for the turbines on which Ireland depends for much of its electricity supply. The alerts kick in when projected supply drops low enough to potentially fail to match demand, threatening supply blackouts.
The alerts, and the CRU/IDA standoff, foreground once again the continued and risky mismatch between build permissions granted to companies, and available energy supply from a small island nation still reliant on outside energy sources. The system has been under pressure for ages. For years, a growing worry has been the largely unfettered growth of energy-devouring data centres, with their huge electricity needs.
According to official figures, data centres now consume 14 per cent of Ireland’s electricity supply. According to May figures from the Central Statistics Office, that’s more than the sum total required by rural residences, at 12 per cent.
It’s also a breathtaking 265 per cent increase in energy demand since 2015. However, it’s not unexpected. Such growth has been predicted for more than a decade. An Oireachtas committee was told last year that if all pending data centre planning applications were granted, data centres would be eating up 70 per cent of Ireland’s energy supply by 2030.
Both Eirgrid and the CRU have singled out the strain placed on supply by data centres at various hearings and in reports.
And yet official policy change, such as it is, has come incredibly slowly because, God forbid, we should not keep luring data centres, even though these facilities employ few people directly and, despite industry bluster, only some portion will be true contributors to any wider, jobs-enhancing cloud computing ecosystem.
Industry claims that schools’ data needs will suffer and that watching a YouTube video on your phone will be hindered without nearly 50 Irish data centres (and many more on the way) are ridiculous.
Meanwhile, a key (always unmentioned) reason for Ireland’s ability to entice such centres – a prominent data-centre-attractor pheromone wafted about behind the scenes – are the minuscule energy tariffs such centres are unburdened with in the first place, a fraction of the energy taxes you and I or small Irish businesses pay. “Peak tariffs” for corporates sound like – at last – a decent equaliser to try to manage industrial power use more equitably, especially when the average Irish data centre consumes the electricity equivalent of Kilkenny.
This week’s energy drama comes less than two weeks after the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment issued a “revised” Statement on the Role of Data Centres in Ireland’s Enterprise Strategy. The document contains a welcome recognition that some limits will need to be placed on data centre expansion, as well as a redirecting of construction away from data centre-swamped Dublin out to the regions. The statement emphasises that data centre growth also must be a balance between “the ‘twin transitions’ of digitalisation and decarbonisation of our economy and society”.
While such aspirations sound good on paper, this week is a demonstration of how difficult that balance will be in practice, how late such plans are in arriving, and how ad hoc past development and energy decisions appear in retrospect.
This week, we can see what an energy mess we’re in. A heavy reliance on wind is fine – when the wind is actually blowing. Right now, battery technologies don’t enable longer term storage of excess supply to be utilised when the winds are flat, as they have been this week, even as the heat again begins to soar – a factor that will lead to higher energy demand to cool data centres.
And as Ireland struggles to meet decarbonisation commitments (and cows, like data centres, seem inexplicably over-protected), it’s having to use dirty, coal-generated energy from old plants to try to meet supply needs. Then, there’s global uncertainty about winter supply, as the war continues in Ukraine.
But the State cannot blame its current energy exposure solely on a war. Irish energy precariousness has been long standing, wind only ever a partial solution. Permissions for energy-demanding developments like data centres were handed out liberally for two decades. No one in official Ireland should be at all surprised at where we are right now.