Oh boy, data centres. The current economic structures that are foretold job creators, regional benefactors and key tech pillars.
Let's get into the bad news. We're hearing a lot of news around data centres generally being awful for the world. They consume enormous amounts of energy to power an enormous amount of computational power in order to give consumers and businesses access to digital stuff.
EirGrid has been caught in the middle of a dilemma where you have data centre operators (including tech companies like Google and Amazon alongside independent OEMs) on one side lobbying for Ireland being an ideal location for such infrastructure. They're arguing that our moderate climate, great internet connections and humans-with-skills makes Ireland a perfect host for data centres. On the other side lies an under-pressure set of government regulators and climate sensitive lobby groups. Right now, EirGrid is erring on the side of climate sensitivity.
What's a data center, though?
Good question! I think we're hearing a lot about them in the news, but no one is teeing up what they are, who they work for, etc.
Largely, a data centre is a location that looks and feels a lot like a big warehouse with hundreds, if not thousands, of computers. Those computers crunch numbers in a central location, prompted by outside sources; normally via the internet. Simple example of this would be running a Google Sheet document. All that hosting of the application, file data and crunching those pivot tables is removed from your own computer at home, and centralised in a data centre.
That allows a tech company to provide a similar user experience globally, centralise the data and run the kind of tech and databases that love big amounts of data to run fast. No more segregated experiences on various desktops with wierd interfaces, operating systems and computer hardware setups.
What's the problem?
Simple, they consume a huge amount of power. They do this for two reasons: 1) to power the computers they host. And there's a lot of them! 2) To cool the room with water and HVAC systems.
Think of all the fans and cooling needed to run a typical high-end computer. Now multiply that by thousands and stick it in warehouse. You need water, systems to cool that water, and enough power from the grid to power everything.
In order to efficiently and effectively do this from a cost basis, you're best investing in fossils to drive that energy.
That energy requirement could end up using a third of all Irish grid power by 2030. That's only a few years away, consumed by data centres powering tech companies for the most part. Without significant upgrades to the grid, that could mean rolling blackouts or brownouts for domestic users.
Ireland is meant to deploy 5GW of offshore wind energy by 2030. But as probably expected, the government are likely to fall short of that. Moreover, typical to Ireland, the cost of these developments are ludicrous comparative to other European initiatives. Hence, fossils are the most likely viable option for these data centres.
Is there any benefit?
Other than jobs, there actually is a strong case for data centres. One, centralising the power consumption of all that compute space, instead of being distributed across everyone's computer around the country, means it's easier to deploy renewables.
It's easier to mandate solar panels, renewable-driven HVAC systems, wind and water energy generation to large warehouses than it is to distribute that mandate to every home and business on the island. In fact, if every data centre ran as much as they can from renewables through the daytime (when they hit peak power) while charging battery arrays, they could provide infrastructure to prop up EirGrid's struggling network by load-balancing when businesses wind down and domestic use goes up (read as: kettles).
With all of that noted, I think there's a lot of over-hyping of data centres. They can provide a lot of benefits on a macro scale, even with power consumption, etc. But when you drill down into myopic perspectives they become easy scapegoats. In Ireland, the issue isn't data centres being inherently bad, it's that there are deep seeded flaws in how Ireland approaches power generation and EirGrid isn't fit for purpose with scale.
Even if we don't get data centres to power, there's a lot of homes and businesses en route anyway. We need innovation at scale with the power grid. We're an island nation with enormous amounts of wind and long day cycles from Paddy's Day through to Halloween. Let's harvest that and stop burning fossil fuels. For domestic and commercial use. Encourage all buildings, especially commercial ones, to lean into solar arrays on rooftops and self-sustaining (as best as you can) HVAC systems.
Halting development of data centres feels like a missed opportunity to go big with this, and be an innovation hub for green energy at scale.