The main Irish business lobby group, the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC), has a constituent unit called Cloud Infrastructure Ireland or CII which defends the corner of Ireland’s data centre industry.

CII numbers Amazon, Google and Microsoft among its membership and has been resisting calls to halt the growth of data centres in Ireland, most of them located in and around Dublin. They are expected to consume 20% of Irish electricity output next year, which compares to about 3% in the typical European country. They also use lots of water and, like electricity, water supply is getting tight, especially in the Dublin area.

Both Eirgrid and Irish Water are unenthusiastic about connecting more data centres.

CII is aligned with the Industrial Development Agency (IDA), long a proponent of data centre expansion. It maintains that there is no cause for concern about water and electricity shortages, and that Government should support the further expansion of the data centre industry. There are currently 82 data centres in the Republic and developments in progress will bring that number to over 100 in short order. Over the last two decades, electricity use for data centres has risen from negligible amounts to the current 20%, the highest figure in the European Union.

The power generation sector would otherwise have seen a worthwhile reduction in fossil fuel usage and hence in carbon emissions as coal, oil and turf stations are withdrawn from service. The data centre boom is using up the entire bonus to emissions reduction that would otherwise be under way as wind and solar renewables are deployed.

Onshore wind farms

There has also been a sharp slowdown in permissions for onshore wind farms. A recent controversy in Coolcappa, Co Limerick, has mobilised local residents against a proposed wind farm that would see turbines located within 700 metres of existing houses, according to an RTÉ report. The residents are concerned about noise and its negative impact on human health.

Scientific evidence for such a negative impact is not critical where the local political response is to support the residents. As with hundreds of similar proposals, the reality is that local opposition will delay, and quite possibly prevent, this plan, since the Irish planning system empowers local residents. In urban Ireland, the residents have more than a voice – they increasingly have a veto on housing schemes. In rural Ireland, local opposition is enough to frustrate renewable energy projects and the transmission infrastructure that Eirgrid needs to connect them.

Local politicians in Limerick and elsewhere point to offshore wind as the alternative – there are no local residents to object, and the tech industry also needs to believe in a policy which will reconcile rapid growth in electricity demand with emissions reduction. In a July 2022 report for CII, the engineering consultants Baringa had this to say: “Looking ahead, Ireland has massive potential renewable energy resources which exceed Irish demand by over 300%.

“As these are developed, the electricity they produce can either be exported ‘raw’ to overseas markets via interconnectors, or it can be ‘refined’ domestically, including in data centres, and exported as computer services. This latter option creates much more value in the Irish economy,” states the report.

Always-on back-up

Ireland’s power demand has recently approached a record of just under 5600MW. More renewables, on- or off-shore, mean more interruptible supply and hence a greater need for always-on back-up which cannot be interruptible.

Data centres increase the demand, unavoidably, for gas-fired units available at peak. This is not mitigated by data centres locking up supplies from the few on-shore wind farms coming on stream whose output is not then freely available to the rest of the system.

Ireland is moreover short of secure importation capacity for gas and has declined to permit an importation terminal for natural gas in liquefied form. Baringa’s promise of plentiful availability of Atlantic wind-power mirrors the lobbying of firms keen to garner State support, and finance, for the huge costs involved in generation and transmission. Baringa offer this myopic comment on official forecasts of rising power demand: “Ireland’s long-term renewable potential exceeds maximum 2030 demand by a factor of four”.

In the here and now, there is a threatened shortage of power with regular orange warnings of possible outages from Eirgrid. The target year of 2030 is not a long way away and there is scepticism from climate experts that the official targets can be met. The ambitions of the IDA for the data centre industry are not consistent with emissions reduction targets and have been unrealistic for many years.

Persistence with current policy will result in growing competition for scarce power supplies, causing upward pressure on electricity costs from already high levels, and agitation for contraction of industries in which Ireland enjoys demonstrable natural advantages. Exporting electricity is not one of them.