Analysis: Data centres in Ireland are now consuming more metered electricity than all of our rural homes put together
"We call it 'the cloud', this kind of ubiquitous name, as if it’s up there, mysteriously in the sky. But data centres do have physical locations and Ireland is a very popular physical location for them," says Dr Paul Deane, research fellow at the MaREI Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy and the Environmental Research Institute at UCC.
There’s nothing magical or complex or indeed nebulous about data centres. It's simply "a bunch of computers" in one location that allow the processing, storage and distribution of huge volumes of information at a massive scale and at huge speed. You might have driven by one on the M50 around Dublin or seen one in a business park.
Data centres facilitate a lot of the things we have come to associate with our daily lives in the digital age: streaming films and TV shows, remote meetings, backing up documents and photographs, communicating with each other, listening to Spotify, shopping online. "The likelihood is that that information, those ones and zeros, will pass through a data centre somewhere. They’re very much central to our modern technology, our modern economy," says Deane.
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There's no doubt that data centres are here to stay. But the sheer scale of them means they represent an enormous drain on our shared resources, from electricity and gas, to water and land, putting them at odds with our climate goals unless something changes and fast. The rapid growth of the data centre industry in Ireland has been such that our electricity grid can no longer keep up and the level of electricity the consume makes Ireland a global outlier.
It’s impossible, in part for security reasons, to know what data is stored in the data centres, but we know generally that streaming services account for 50-60% of it, says Dr Patrick Bresnihan, lecturer in the Department of Geography at Maynooth University. These vast collections of computer servers may be sitting in Ireland, but they handle data from millions of people across the world.
"There’s this idea that data and the cloud and data centres are a social good, that they’re necessary for everyday life in the same way that water is, or even energy is, but you have to understand that the drivers of our data usage and our data consumption are some of the largest tech companies in the world, whose business model relies on more interaction online, more likes, more streaming."
A typical large data centre on the outskirts of Dublin could be consuming as much electricity as Kilkenny City
"It's like fast data. People are aware that fast fashion is really cheap and we throw it away, but that it has huge costs and that it makes huge profits. It's exactly the same with the digital economy and I think that we need to be more literate and more clear about, what data do we want? We want digital economies, we want data to help us with our connectivity, our healthcare, but then there’s vast amounts of data that we don’t need and that are largely just there because it’s about the greater consumption of data."
There are currently about 70 data centres in Ireland that are up and running and 65 of them are in the greater Dublin area. Tech companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google all have data storage facilities here.
Data centre providers choose Ireland for a number of reasons. Ireland is politically stable, with a very intelligent workforce, as well as "incredibly generous corporation tax profiles," says Deane. The corporation tax in Ireland is 12.5%, the second lowest in Europe. We also has a good climate for data centres; it’s not too hot and not too cold, we are geographically and tectonically stable, with no earthquakes, volcanoes or forest fires.
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"The other obvious thing is that a lot of the big corporates, the Googles and the Facebooks, already have their headquarters here in Ireland. So by co-locating their data centres here, it keeps them local, keeps them nearby," he says.
A typical large data centre on the outskirts of Dublin could be consuming as much electricity as Kilkenny City, says Deane. Electricity consumption by data centres increased by 32% from 2020 to 2021, according to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office. The figures show that data centres (14%) are now consuming more metered electricity than all of Ireland’s rural homes put together (12%). Eirgrid, Ireland's electricity grid operator, has said this could rise to 30% by 2030.
"Globally, the electricity consumption from data centres is about 1%. Relatively benign, almost negligible, when you think of the huge benefits that they enable across our society," Deane says. But in Ireland today data centres account for 14% and that’s what makes Ireland unusual and an outlier at a global level in terms of the electricity consumption from data centres.
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"In Eirgrid’s own submissions, they talk about an average data centre being 60 megawatt, which is about the size of a small town," Bresnihan says. "But the hyper scale data centre, these are the big ones usually categorised as being more than 5000 servers, you’re talking anywhere between the range of 60 and 200 megawatt.
"When you look at the figures, it’s just astonishing how big they are. If you compare internationally, Singapore is one of the next biggest countries in terms of the draw-down on the grid, I think it’s 7% of Singapore’s grid and we’re 14%, and Singapore brought in a moratorium on data centres about two years ago."
We haven’t brought in a moratorium in Ireland, though opposition parties and environmental groups have called for one. It was in the context of a genuine concern about the "very real and very serious" risk of brownouts and blackouts that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU), Ireland's energy and water regulator, made a decision in relation to data centres in November 2021 following a consultation process.
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"The CRU were worried about the huge appetite for the development of data centres in Ireland because it was growing very, very large and it was outpacing power ability, particularly in parts of Dublin," explains Deane.
While a moratorium on new data centres was ruled out, the CRU decided new applications to Eirgrid should be assessed primarily based on certain conditions. These are the proposed location, the ability of new data centres to have their own on-site electricity supply equal or greater to their demand, and the ability to be flexible in demand by reducing consumption from the grid in times of constraint.
"For the last couple of years Ireland has really struggled to generate the amount of electricity it needs," says Deane. While our ability to produce electricity, particularly reliably electricity, is decreasing, our appetite to consume electricity, particularly from data centres, is increasing. Although Ireland is doing "very well" in renewables, the challenge is that if it’s not very windy, we rely on conventional fossil fuel power plants and those plants are getting older, he says. "If you’re not able to generate the amount of electricity that you need, it puts the power system in a very difficult location, under a lot of stress."
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"More or less what they came up with is an effective pause button on the development of data centres in certain parts of Ireland," says Deane. EirGrid previously said that it was considering applications from just under 30 data centre projects when the CRU decision was published. Following this, EirGrid said the majority of those proposed projects "have been, or are in the process of being, closed out in line with the CRU direction".
In July of this year, the government published a revised statement on data centres in Ireland. This stated a preference for data centres developments associated with strong economic activity and employment, that make efficient use of the electricity grid, using available capacity and alleviating constraints, and that can demonstrate a clear pathway to decarbonise and ultimately provide net zero data services.
Clare County Council recently approved planning permission for a new €450m data centre campus in Ennis, while Dublin City Council has granted planning permission to Colliers Properties, who are acting on behalf of Amazon Web Services, for two new data centres in Clonshaugh, Co Dublin.
But electricity, as we are finding out, is just one part of the story.
This is the first in a RTÉ Brainstorm series on data centres in Ireland.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ