Data centre expansion could impact public support for decarbonisation, Committee told

28 September 2021 

The continued expansion of data centres in Ireland could impact public support for decarbonisation efforts in Ireland, an Oireachtas Committee heard today. 

Speaking before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA), Dr. Patrick Bresnihan of Maynooth University warned members that rising energy bills and carbon taxes for households while planning permission continues to be granted for energy-intensive data centres, “is already being perceived as an unfair distribution of costs.” 

“It may be harder to gain the support of the Irish population for decarbonisation efforts. There is a danger that the public would perceive climate action as serving the interests of a few with the burden carried by the majority,” he concluded in his opening statement. 

Dr. Bresnihan also stressed that currently data centres represent 11 per cent of grid capacity based on existing connections according to EirGrid’s own figures. If all proposed data centre projects were connected, that figure could climb to as high as 70 per cent by the end of the decade. 

“This is compared with 2 per cent of electricity consumed by data centres worldwide,” he added. 

Data centres house servers that store digital information at scale, and Ireland currently is home to 70 operational data centres, with the majority being housed in the capital, making Dublin the largest data centre hub in Europe. 

Data growth is “not inevitable” 

Dr. Bresnihan also disputed the assumption that their growth and our consumption of data is a given, and told the Committee that the ever-growing demand, “is not inevitable.” 

“Our consumption of data is very much linked to the business models and activities of online platforms. Netflix, Twitter, Instagram, and their business models are geared towards us consuming more data,” he said. 

When asked by Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore about the prospect of a data centre levy, Dr. Bresnihan noted that it’s something that should be considered given the many costs the structures ultimately come with. 

The energy infrastructure for servicing data centres could climb as high as 9 billion by the end of the decade and due to the high price tag, “some kind of tax should be associated with that,” in Dr. Bresnihan’s opinion. 

The expansion of data centres facilitating new Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals was also a “plausible” scenario, according to his testimony. 

“I think that it has been made explicit that these gas terminals are being developed in tandem with data centres. 

It’s not just a question of energy supply and energy demand, it’s actually that data centres are incorporated as part of the development,” he said. 

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Kayle Crosson