Last weekend I met a family living in Ireland whose members dress like the Amish. They wear self-spun, all-covering clothing in simple, dark colors and use modern technology only sparingly.
They were perfectly polite and relaxed with their lifestyle choices, and I found it oddly uplifting to see some people decide to stop the clock and move away from the digital age.
But going against the grain requires tremendous conviction and determination, and for many of us, data is an essential lubricant on the wheels of our daily lives. We use it for remote work and education, online banking and shopping, and to connect with friends and family.
We watch movies and concerts online, keep up to date online, read articles online, listen to podcasts, documentaries or discussions online, go to meetings online – it’s embedded in our everyday lives.
Access to the Internet has been accelerated in part because banks, for example, make their services difficult to use unless you do it virtually. All types of businesses, from insurance providers to utility companies, interact with us through online accounts.
Even when leaving our homes to visit stationary venues like theaters or cinemas, or to take buses or trains, we are encouraged to book tickets online.
Much of day-to-day internet activity is done via email and file storage is the order of the day, which means we also run virtual filing cabinets – few will shed a tear when that particular piece of furniture is obsolete.
E-mail accounts, photos, videos and documents are stored on huge computer servers in data centers. So far so good for fully paid users of the information superhighway – these data centers are acting as enablers for the digital economy. But they also guzzle electricity, sucking up a disproportionate 14 percent of energy from the national grid and gulp water to cool servers.
Which brings me to their impact on the environment.
A few months ago, members of South Dublin County Council voted to ban all new data centers in their area due to concerns about the strain on the national power grid. There have been at least six yellow warnings in the past year.
Earlier this week the government ordered the council to reverse its ban, with junior minister Peter Burke telling him his ban went against national and regional policy.
Could the government respond to the pressure from Lord High Multinationals and keep pushing for more, more, more data centers? There are currently 70 such facilities nationwide, which house information for Amazon, Facebook and Google, among other things. Ireland is heavily dependent on 10 multinationals, which pay more than half of our rising corporate tax revenue. They were responsible for almost a quarter of all tax revenue in the first half of this year.
Politically, we have always been extremely accommodating to these giants, recognizing how much national finances count on them, and recent tax returns underscore our confidence.
Yesterday, the latest figures from the government showed that a surplus of 5 billion euros was generated in the seven months to the end of last month. Record receipts are due to increases in corporate taxes collected, as well as higher VAT and personal income tax receipts.
Part of the increase in VAT is due to rising prices in the economy, with inflation at more than 9 percent. However, the Treasury noted that healthy government revenues were in part due to “significant increases in profitability in the multinational sector”. In short, they have us over a barrel.
Two facts to think about now. First, as mentioned earlier, multinationals want more data centers. Second, government policy supports data centers.
Clearly, the coalition wants to build more centers, energy-intensive as they are – and maybe even make Ireland the data center capital. The planning regulator’s office recently said that the independent-thinking Dublin Council “has a national objective to promote Ireland as a sustainable international destination for ICT infrastructure such as data centres”.
The Office does not make policy, but it does ensure that planning policy is implemented correctly.
Let’s look at the organizing principle behind this data center policy decision. Should it be particularly convenient for multinational companies that already benefit from our more than nice corporate tax regimes? Create jobs?
Having a data center arguably increases the likelihood that companies will locate other operations here. But data centers alone aren’t particularly useful employers, providing only 1,800 jobs nationwide.
Draining the national grid by 14 percent is a huge drain on so few jobs. Globally, just 2 percent of electricity is consumed by data centers, suggesting Ireland carries a top-heavy number of them. They account for just under 2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, but additional data centers mean additional emissions and significantly intensified power consumption.
Consequently, the question arises as to whether opening our door to data centers is the right policy – especially when it conflicts with green policies. And what about the pressure on the web?
Wind energy is repeatedly mentioned as a solution, but wind energy is not sufficient and not constant enough to meet demand – after all, the wind does not blow every day.
Government policy has set ambitious targets for emissions and renewable energy by 2030, and meeting these targets will no doubt become more difficult as additional centers are built. As households cope with rising energy bills, granting building permits for power-hungry data centers is inconsistent.
Last year said Dr. Patrick Bresnihan of NUI Maynooth told the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Climate Change that the average data center uses as much electricity as a small town like Kilkenny.
Finally, what good are council members if they cannot vote on matters pertaining to their area? A motion was tabled by Madeleine Johansson of People Before Profit and passed by a majority of South Dublin County Council. It smacks of authoritarianism to overturn a council’s democratic mandate.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/policy-makers-pull-plug-on-common-sense-by-approving-energy-hungry-data-centres-41890828.html Policymakers are pulling the plug on common sense by approving energy-hungry data centers