Ireland could face ‘rolling blackouts’ if data centres demand on electricity grid continues to escalate

by Rachel Cunningham
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By Rachel Cunningham

A leading member of the country’s non-governmental environmental watchdog An Taisce has warned of possible consequences to energy supply from the increasing numbers of data centres being located in Ireland.

Phoebe Duvall, the body’s planning and environmental policy officer, told the Dublin Gazette this week that while there were many advantages to having such centres located here, our government needed to be “very cognisant of the implications from the point of view of our climate and renewable energy targets.”

Explaining the potential problem, she pointed out: “The extremely rapid proliferation of data centres here is going to be an issue for us into the future if measures are not taken.”

These are facilities that centralise an organisation’s shared information technology (IT) operations and equipment for the purposes of storing, processing, and distributing data and applications. With increasing climate awareness and in light of Ireland’s commitments towards zero emissions, the development of these centres has been placed under closer scrutiny than ever before, she explained.

Globally, Ireland is a particularly attractive location for data centre development, owing to the country’s climate, its proximity to key markets and its skilled workforce, as host to many of the world’s largest technology companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

Recent plans for a €350m data centre in Drogheda for Amazon, which would be the American multinational technology giant’s second centre in Ireland, were put on hold after objections were raised by An Taisce.

 The organistion made its appeal as a protector of the environment and built heritage against Meath County Council’s decision to grant planning permission for the data centre through An Bord Pleanála, on the grounds that planning authorities are failing to consider the negative impact of data centres, which would affect Ireland’s renewable energy targets.

An Bord Pleanála is due to give its ruling in the case by November 3.

Regarding An Taisce’s appeal, Ms Duvall explained: “Proposals for data centres are being treated on a case-by-case basis. Essentially, in a planning application, you have the proposal for a data centre on a small site, which is very tiny in terms of the scale of the country but with a huge energy impact and they’re just being assessed for their impacts in the local area rather than for their overall energy demand and emissions.

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“For something quite small, it has a proportionally large impact and we don’t feel that that is being assessed in combination with the data centre as a whole. Given the big environmental implications of that, we feel that that is quite problematic and is potentially infringing upon the environmental impact assessment, which is at EU level. It’s both a planning issue on an individual basis but also an issue of regulation.”

Expanding on how data centres may affect Ireland’s renewable energy targets, Ms Duvall stated: “Ireland has made very good progress towards reaching our renewable energy goals, with roughly 43 per cent of our electricity being sourced from renewable energy, on average. That is excellent progress so far, considering that we are aiming towards being 70 per cent renewable by 2030.

“When it comes to Corporate Power Purchase Agreements (CPPAs), that would mean that data centres would be buying renewable energy from a supplier. The issue for us at the moment is that data centres are currently using 11 per cent of our energy but by 2027 or 2028, they are projected to be using upwards of 30 per cent, which is a huge increase.

“The thing to be aware of is that increased power demand will dilute the renewables penetration that we have had already. Basically, the more demand there is above current levels, the more renewable energy we’re going to have to put on stream to meet that target of 70 per cent.

Phoebe Duvall

“That’s a huge demand increase from data centres alone, not considering the rest of energy usage. So, the more demand they create, the more we’re going to have to work to catch-up with our renewable energy targets.”

Last month, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) cautioned that Ireland could be facing a future of “rolling blackouts” if urgent interventions are not made to tackle the strain that these centres could place on the nation’s electricity grid.

In a recent letter to the CRU in relation to allowing further connection of data centres under Ireland’s current policy, EirGrid highlighted concerns regarding the potential impact on the worsening “security of supply” situation. The CRU responded by publishing a consultation paper that invited interested parties to submit comments until July 7. Through this consultation, the CRU seeks to find the best possible method of protecting electricity consumers and security of supply, while continuing to connect data centres to the electricity system.

In its consultation paper, the commission wrote: “Data centres can bring benefits to the Irish economy, however, as large consumers of electricity, data centres pose a challenge to a sustainable and secure power system. It is the CRU’s intention to work with EirGrid and through this consultation, the data centre community, to develop a range of measures to ensure that objectives such as decarbonisation, local and regional security of electricity supply are achieved alongside economic development, while also balancing the need for adequate protection of end user costs. Without mitigation, these objectives will be difficult to achieve in the context of rapid demand growth of data centres; the typically large energy use of each data centre; and the current low level of flexibility of data centres with regard to their demand.”

As the CRU gathers information with the aim of making a judgement and reconciliation between the competing objectives of economic benefit and energy strain, Ms Duvall encouraged members of the public to remind the State and the regulators of their responsibility to manage demand.

“From an individual perspective, we can place pressure on decision-makers, the government and energy regulators to take a look at the rapid growth of this industry in Ireland. Obviously, we need data and we are reliant on data centres. However, it is necessary to raise associated concerns, such as blackout warnings, as it highlights a more tangible side of this level of energy use. If members of the public want to make a difference, ask for better regulation or else this rapid data centre growth is going to be a problem for Ireland in terms of energy demand”, she advised.

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