Data centre expansion to drive up energy demand and emissions
August 28th, 2019
The ramping up of data centre development in Ireland could add 1.5 million tonnes to our carbon emissions by 2030, a new analysis from the Irish Academy of Engineering (IAE) has found.
Sixteen new centres became operational in 2018 alone, a further 28 are currently in development, and €5 billion worth of capital investment is expected within the next four years.
In 2016, total energy demand accounted for less than five per cent of total electricity use. Eirgrid estimates that data centres, together with a small number of large industrial centres, will account for 31 per cent of the national electricity demand by 2027.
A 2018 study from Trinity College Dublin raised concern over the impact of growing data centre numbers due to their constant need for energy that can stress the national grid during peak demand times.
The paper also finds that rising data centre demand may impact future emissions and “could present an additional barrier” to meeting our EU-mandated energy targets.
The Government is pushing for 70 per cent of electricity to be renewable-driven by 2030 in a bid to bring down emissions from the energy sector.
A new analysis from the IAE, however, finds that carbon emissions from data centres will still add 1.5 million tonnes of emissions, even under a scenario where electricity is generated by 70 per cent renewables combined with highly efficient gas units.
High costs envisioned
This estimate also assumes that battery storage that has the capacity to store up to a day’s worth of renewable energy demand from data centres will be in place by 2030.
If achieved, this would displace some of the need for fossil fuel-powered generation “when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine”, the study states.
The IAE’s analysis also found that investment to provide the power supply to support data centre development will reach almost €9 billion by 2027.
The main costs envisioned include a €6 billion investment in the transmission grid and the development of four new transmission circuits “some or all of which may be both controversial and difficult to execute”.
The study also outlines around €2.5 billion in costs to develop battery storage. This figure is based on the assumption that battery costs will halve by 2030.
“The issue of who will pay for this investment and how it will be funded urgently needs analysis and debate, as does the potential future development of the data industry itself,” the study finds.
Social media driver
Globally, data centres use around 200 terawatt-hours (TWh) of power each year, accounting for one per cent of the world’s electricity demand and 0.3 per cent of overall emission. This figure is expected to skyrocket in the coming decade.
A recent study estimated that information and communications technology (ICT) will account for 51 per cent of global electricity demand and 23 per cent of emissions in 2030.
While this broad ICT category includes the likes of personal digital devices, phone networks and television electricity generation, the study is clear that data centres will make up a large chunk of the demand.
Data centres can serve an important role in supporting and linking many important functions, such as government services, communications networks, air traffic control systems and weather forecasting systems.
The average citizen also relies on data centres for everyday activities that we can now carry out from computers or apps on our phones like booking transportation, shopping, paying bills, and making medical appointments.
The increasing use of social media, however, is becoming a voracious data-eater, according to Microsoft computer scientist Jaron Lanier who penned the book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
Mr Lanier argued that we could significantly curtail data centres’ energy consumption if we deleted our social media accounts.
Speaking last year, Mr Lanier said that even a simple like or posting a photo on Instagram requires the storage of an extensive quantity of data.
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