Data centres in Ireland are now consuming more metered electricity than all of our rural homes put together.
“We call it ‘the cloud’, this kind of ubiquitous name, as if it’s up there, mysteriously in the sky. But data centres do have physical locations and Ireland is a very popular physical location for them,” says Dr Paul Deane, research fellow at the MaREI Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy and the Environmental Research Institute at UCC.
There’s nothing magical or complex or indeed nebulous about data centres. It’s simply “a bunch of computers” in one location that allow the processing, storage and distribution of huge volumes of information at a massive scale and at huge speed. You might have driven by one on the M50 around Dublin or seen one in a business park.
Data centres facilitate a lot of the things we have come to associate with our daily lives in the digital age: streaming films and TV shows, remote meetings, backing up documents and photographs, communicating with each other, listening to Spotify, shopping online. “The likelihood is that that information, those ones and zeros, will pass through a data centre somewhere. They’re very much central to our modern technology, our modern economy,” says Deane.
“It’s like fast data. People are aware that fast fashion is really cheap and we throw it away, but that it has huge costs and that it makes huge profits. It’s exactly the same with the digital economy and I think that we need to be more literate and more clear about, what data do we want? We want digital economies, we want data to help us with our connectivity, our healthcare, but then there’s vast amounts of data that we don’t need and that are largely just there because it’s about the greater consumption of data.”
There are currently about 70 data centres in Ireland that are up and running and 65 of them are in the greater Dublin area. Tech companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google all have data storage facilities here.
Data centre providers choose Ireland for a number of reasons. Ireland is politically stable, with a very intelligent workforce, as well as “incredibly generous corporation tax profiles,” says Deane. The corporation tax in Ireland is 12.5%, the second lowest in Europe. We also has a good climate for data centres; it’s not too hot and not too cold, we are geographically and tectonically stable, with no earthquakes, volcanoes or forest fires.
The other obvious thing is that a lot of the big corporates, the Googles and the Facebooks, already have their headquarters here in Ireland. So by co-locating their data centres here, it keeps them local, keeps them nearby,” he says.
A typical large data centre on the outskirts of Dublin could be consuming as much electricity as Kilkenny City, says Deane. Electricity consumption by data centres increased by 32% from 2020 to 2021, according to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office. The figures show that data centres (14%) are now consuming more metered electricity than all of Ireland’s rural homes put together (12%). Eirgrid, Ireland’s electricity grid operator, has said this could rise to 30% by 2030.
“Globally, the electricity consumption from data centres is about 1%. Relatively benign, almost negligible, when you think of the huge benefits that they enable across our society,” Deane says. But in Ireland today data centres account for 14% and that’s what makes Ireland unusual and an outlier at a global level in terms of the electricity consumption from data centres.
“In Eirgrid’s own submissions, they talk about an average data centre being 60 megawatt, which is about the size of a small town,” Bresnihan says. “But the hyper scale data centre, these are the big ones usually categorised as being more than 5000 servers, you’re talking anywhere between the range of 60 and 200 megawatt.
“When you look at the figures, it’s just astonishing how big they are. If you compare internationally, Singapore is one of the next biggest countries in terms of the draw-down on the grid, I think it’s 7% of Singapore’s grid and we’re 14%, and Singapore brought in a moratorium on data centres about two years ago.”
We haven’t brought in a moratorium in Ireland, though opposition parties and environmental groups have called for one. It was in the context of a genuine concern about the “very real and very serious” risk of brownouts and blackouts that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU), Ireland’s energy and water regulator, made a decision in relation to data centres in November 2021 following a consultation process.