Data centers are pushing the Irish electricity grid to the brink

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Behind every TikTok, Zoom call, and cat meme stands a data center that stores, processes, or redirects that data around the world. The more we work online, the bigger these data centers and their energy footprint become.

At full capacity, servers within a modern “hyperscale” (aka “massive”) data center can use as much energy as 80,000 households. Although the data center industry is global, places with the right combination of stable climate and friendly regulations are attracting a lot of attention from data center developers. Ireland is one of these places. The island nation is the host 70 data centers and is now the fastest growing data center market in Europe. Unfortunately, delivering the equivalent amount of a few extra cities of valuable electricity to the servers that are helping your turnaround is starting to take its toll on Ireland’s electricity grid.

Data centers already use about 900 megawatts of electricity in Ireland. According to Paul Deane, an energy researcher working with Institute for Environmental Research MaREI in Ireland, this accounts for at least 11% of Ireland’s total electricity supply at present, a situation he described as a “serious energy system problem”. As Deane pointed out, meeting this requirement makes it Ireland’s request current energy crisis even worse, its goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is harder to achieve. And things are only getting more challenging. A recent report by Eirgrid, Ireland’s state-owned network operator, shows that data centers will spend almost 30% Ireland’s annual electricity supply until 2029.

Although, as Deane pointed out, data centers are essential for modern life (Zoom’s call I have with him would not be possible without them), a small country with little energy network that can spare hosting so many of them puts Ireland’s sustainability all power in dangers. Deane summed up Ireland’s problem with data centers as a size mismatch. “Data centers are big users, and our power system is small, so including more of them in a small network will start to have a huge impact,” he said. In sharp comparison, Germany, the largest market for data centers in the EU, will be used less than 5% the capacity of its data center power supply network in the same period. As well as encouraging fears that the growth of the industry will create power outages and power outages for Irish consumers this winter, data centers could also disrupt Ireland’s intention to reach out net zero emissions by 2050.

For Phoebe Duvall, planning oclerk in The Treasure, Ireland ‘s leading environmental NGO, is a key issue for the data center industry. “As we can see, Ireland is hosting a disproportionate amount of data centers, something that has huge climate implications,” she said.

Taisce, which as the prescribed planning body (an organization with statutory oversight duties somewhat unique to the country), must be notified of plans or developments that may affect Ireland’s natural environment, has opposed several data center developments to date. Duvall said the main concern of the NGO is that more than doubling the size of the Irish data center industry by 2030 is in direct contrast to Ireland‘s otherwise progressive goals of climate action.

“Yes, they are [data centers] support renewable energy, but we cannot allow all our renewables to move towards new developments instead of decarbonising our existing energy system, ” she said.

Host in Ireland, a representative body for data center developers, shows industry as a climate champion. It is often pointed out that the owners of data centers enter into contracts for the purchase of electricity with producers of renewable energy sources. A Media Release the group boasts that the growth of the Irish data center industry will “go hand in hand with the development of green electricity to meet energy availability requirements”. However, according to Deane, that’s not the whole story. He said that unless data centers can somehow store renewable energy on site or flexibly share the demand for computers globally (to get renewable energy 24 hours a day), more data centers will result in more fossil fuel power plants. “They won’t just turn off Facebook because it’s dark outside or it’s not windy,” he added.

As far as An Taisce sees, this industry unrelated to real climate policy makes the growth of data centers in Ireland reckless. The organization supported the calls of politicians outside the Irish center-right ruling coalition, such as the Social Democratic TD (elected representative) Jennifer Whitmore, for moratorium on data center construction. Until their impact on climate and energy is better understood and measures to promote sustainability are put in place, groups like An Taisce want to see data center building paused. Singapore recently took a similar step thanks land and energy use concerns.

With his new climate action plan declaring its intention to “reconsider” its current data center policy, Ireland’s traditionally data-centric government may still take some steps in that direction. Recently published guidelines from the Irish utility regulator they now demand that the new data center network connections be “within the framework of the need for stability and reliability of the electricity grid system”, a move that may discourage development. However, while belated government recognition of the need to act on data centers is welcome, the industry itself also needs to do more. Data center developers were quick to explain why they came to Ireland in the first place, but, as Deane said, “now they need to show us why they should stay.”

Robbie Galvin is a writer based in Ireland. Reporting on topics ranging from sustainability to edible seaweed, he has written for publications such as Hakai Magazine, Earth Island Journal and Whetstone Magazine.

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Naveen Kumar

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