Are data centers leeches to Ireland’s vulnerable electricity supply or an inevitable part of modern infrastructure? When the awkward answer is “both,” what do we do?
reland’s 70 data centers, which process almost all of our internet usage, consume about 14 percent of the country’s total electricity needs. That’s about as much as all country homes combined, and EirGrid says it could double again within the next six years.
Ireland’s physical grid can’t keep up with that kind of growth because we haven’t invested enough in it.
EirGrid therefore wants to stop connecting new data centers in Dublin to the grid by 2028. The Commission of Regulation of Utilities disagrees, saying applications can be granted, albeit on a case-by-case basis.
In this regard, Amazon’s recent bid for two data centers in north Dublin depended on the development of its own wind farms in Galway, Cork and Donegal to offset the power needs of the new buildings.
Still, sharp political disagreements remain on the broader issue of data centers. While Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe says data centers are a core part of Ireland’s industry, opposition TDs tell them they are energy vampires who should not be further encouraged by the state at a time of national energy insecurity.
Data centers are huge buildings, usually located on the outskirts of cities, that house racks of computer servers. They are mainly used to process our internet activities. That means everything from Netflix and email to banks and hospitals.
They use large amounts of electricity and water for power and cooling.
Unfortunately, Ireland has one of the better physical climates for data centers. Because our summers and winters are mild, the centers do not need to be heated or air-conditioned to the same extent as in many other countries. This means less energy and costs for the operator.
The result is that Ireland has a higher number of data centers per capita than almost any other EU country.
Industry advocates point out that this is natural selection for sustainability. Isn’t it better for the planet, they argue, if the plants are built in the least power-intensive places?
Political tempers flare up here. Opponents like People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy and Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore say the sustainability argument is just a convenience one. They argue that government is simply putting corporate interests ahead of citizens.
They, in turn, are accused of nimbyism: They don’t argue that data centers are generally not needed, they just don’t want them here.
An underlying problem is that the amount of data we all use is increasing every year. Figures from telecoms regulator ComReg show that the amount of data the average Irishman uses on their phone has doubled in the last three years.
It also says that over 80 per cent of Irish household broadband connections have increased to over 30MB, with 45 per cent now equipped with lines supporting over 100MB.
Irish national policy over the past decade has broadly supported this trend, even calling it an inclusive progressive policy.
We are currently spending between €2 and €3 billion to roll out fiber broadband to all rural properties, which is guaranteed to lead to new spikes in data usage across the 550,000 rural properties it covers. Much if not all of this will depend on the capacity of data centers somewhere in the country.
However, domestic usage is only part of what data centers actually do in Ireland. They are also responsible for blocks of data processed by Internet users in other, mostly European, countries.
Are they important to the job? It depends who you ask. Building process aside, a data center typically supports no more than 50 or 60 seats per site.
This has led to critics saying they’re not worth it.
Taking it off the grid could be tolerated, some suggest, if it created a few extra jobs to justify the power needed.
However, the tech giants that own or commission them tell a different story. They claim that hosting a data center in one country entrenches operations there in a way that’s difficult to unravel. They also say it makes them more likely to build a significant office in the country.
Other tech companies point to Dublin’s tremendous growth as the center of Europe’s data regulation industry, citing data centers as part of that facility.
TikTok, which is increasing its workforce here from 2,000 to 3,000 over the next 18 months, says a key reason for the decision to base so many jobs in Dublin was Ireland’s now central role in regulating the data side of Europe’s tech industry.
In the longer term, a growing population indicates that Ireland needs to invest more in its power generation capacity. It remains to be seen whether data centers will be seen as a sufficient trigger for a kickstart.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/energy-vampires-or-essential-for-irish-industry-data-centres-in-the-spotlight-41914094.html Energy vampires or essential to Irish industry? Data centers in the spotlight