What’s the story with data centres?

Published by admin on

27 August 2021

They’ve been popping up all over the country. Opposition has been mounting against them. But they still are pretty mysterious and complicated to understand.

So we think it’s definitely time they had their own explainer.

Just so we’re on the same page – what are data centres?

They are the physical storage centres for the online, digital aspect of our world.

Basically everything we do online – browsing the web, storage in the cloud, streaming videos – has to be stored somewhere. Just like an external hard drive stores documents from your own computer, servers in data centres store digital information at scale. They are housed in large, industrial looking complexes.

There are now 70 operational data centres in Ireland and Dublin has become the largest data centre hub in Europe.

These centres are often incorrectly seen as a part of the “green future,” according to Geography Lecturer in Maynooth University, Dr. Patrick Bresnihan, but their impacts “are also very much related to fossil fuels.”

He stressed that the “idea of the cloud really needs to be brought down to earth, quite literally.”

Okay, so they are powered by fossil fuels. What other problems do they have?

Data centres use a lot of power and water.

A report from Eirgrid suggests that data centres and other large energy users could be using up to a third of the national grid by 2030. Planning and Environmental Policy Officer at An Taisce Phoebe Duvall warned that this is “serious issue in terms of security of our energy supply.”

“Worst case scenario: there could be rolling blackouts and heavily grid constraint areas like Dublin as a result of data centres,” she told The Green News.

The energy that fuels data centres can come from both renewable sources, like wind, and non-renewable sources, like gas. There is clearly a more climate-friendly option between the two, but even in that case it continues to add pressure to the grid.

For data centres that are powered by non-renewable sources like liquified natural gas, an additional strain is placed on the energy supply. These projects see data centres powered by fracked gas and fossil fuels – an action that has seen criticisms and protests.

The Eirgrid report didn’t mention water or take into account the additional stress placed on the water supply. But data centres are big water users – the servers have to be cooled down somehow.

So while Ireland seeks to reduce emissions, energy use, and faces stresses on the water supply, data centres add pressure to Ireland’s resources.

The other big concern raised are the jobs.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith stressed that these centres don’t bring the number or kind of jobs that would benefit the local community. She said there are jobs created in the initial construction work, once they are in operation but there is a “very limited amount of staff will be applied in any long term or permanent basis.”

“These things run themselves so big, powerful machines, that are programmed more or less to run themselves,” she added.

I’ve heard about a proposed data centre in Ennis – What’s the deal there?

Environmental campaigners have called it a “climate disaster waiting to happen.”

Futureproof Clare member, Emanuela Ferrari outlined the proposed usage from the planning application. During hot weather, the site would use one million litres of water a day. “That’s about half the water Ennis would consume, from a conservative estimation,” Ms. Ferrari warned.

The energy consumption of this plant would be 200 megawatts. That’s the equivalent to 210,000 homes. Fellow Futureproof Clare member, William Hederman put that energy usage into context.

He said that if all of Ireland went on a big climate action drive, and “we all reduce our energy consumption by 10 per cent, that entire slating will be wiped out by this one project in Ennis.”

The campaigners are also sceptical about the number of jobs that would be created from this site. There are 250 permanent jobs proposed, plus further spinoff jobs. But Mr. Hederman is doubtful.

There have been over 50 submissions with over 250 signatures, in response to this proposal. Now, they are awaiting a decision, which is due to be made on September 9th

Why are there so many in Ireland?

There’s more than one answer to this. The three biggest reasons, though, have to do with Ireland’s climate, the influence of tech companies and the political response to them.

Ireland’s cooler climate is attractive for data centres. The servers are prone to heat up, so it’s critical for them to be built in a place that has cooler, consistent temperatures.

But this is something that may have been over emphasised. Mr. Hederman said that “there are quite a few European countries where it will be less carbon intensive than Ireland” and added that “there is a disproportionate amount of data in Ireland.”

To understand why that is, we have to look at history that begins before there was the cloud or video streaming services.

“Data centres have to be put in a much longer picture,” Dr. Bresnihan urged. They’re the most recent manifestation of a policy which goes back to the sixties and seventies. This sees “Ireland doing what it can to attract foreign companies to locate here.”

Lastly, data centres are approved on a county council basis. There isn’t a national policy in place to respond to them.

So though the area around the site might be assessed, it affects more than the adjacent community. “That makes no sense for energy and climate impact,” said Ms. Duvall.  She urges that the impacts of the data centre “are not confined to that site.”

Deputy Smith echoed Ms. Duvall’s point of the influence of this industry.

“Data centres don’t have chimney stacks, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have huge carbon footprints,” she said.

So are you saying that data centres shouldn’t be here, but they should be in other places?

No, not necessarily. It is a tricky balance to meet – data centres are necessary for our online life, but they place a lot of stress where they’re located.

“You can put the data centre somewhere else, but even if you put it somewhere else, that doesn’t negate the fact that you’re still increasing energy demand and emissions,” Ms. Duvall told The Green News.  

The campaigners and experts recognised the need for them, but were cautious at the rate of their growth. But that doesn’t mean that it should be outsourced to another country.

“This kind of environmental damage doesn’t know any boundaries,” said Ms. Farrari. “So, we are broaching that discourse that we need something that should be tackled globally.” 

Alright, I think I have a good understanding at this point. Last question – what is being done to address data centres?

Despite an Oireachtas committee being told that the current approach to data centres is ‘appropriate’, there are both campaigners on the ground and policy proposed to counter the data centres.

Futureproof Clare is among one of the many organisations building public support to oppose these data centres. Most recently, they hosted a webinar to get the information out.

Dr. Bresnihan also thinks this accountability should extend beyond the energy providers as well and said that “the tech companies that are either developing the data centres directly or using the data centres need to take or have much more of a responsibility for the energy that goes into powering them.”

Deputy Smith believes this issue is a “litmus test” for the Irish government. She has proposed a bill tabled last June that would effectively ban data centres and LNGs. If passed, the bill would require the planning authorities to take account of the carbon in the atmosphere. If the rate is over 350 parts per million, the planning cannot be granted.

She urged that this would “effectively ban both LNG’s and data centres as long as we are in a climate emergency.”

“It is still utterly wrong for us to have such a proliferation of saturation of data centres in the country,” urged Deputy Smith. “There’s no other country that would allow it.”

By Sam Starkey

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