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Growth in electricity demand due to data centres 'unlike anything Ireland has seen in 100 years'

Data centres are ‘disproportionately’ adding to Ireland’s energy demands, an Oireachtas Committee has heard.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THE CURRENT GROWTH in Ireland’s electricity demand, which data centres are driving, is “unlike anything” the country has seen before, an Oireachtas Committee has heard.

An expert has warned that continuing to develop data centres without a clear plan for reducing Ireland’s overall emissions is a “bad idea”.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Climate Action convened this afternoon to discuss Ireland’s energy supplies and data centres amid forecasts that the country could face electricity shortages over the next five winters.

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Aoife MacEvilly, Chairperson of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, said that “on the topic of data centres, electricity demand growth from this sector is unlike anything Ireland has seen in the past 100 years”.

“At present, this demand is connecting to the grid more quickly and easily than it has proven possible to deliver the supporting transmission and generation infrastructure.”

The Commission has “consulted on a draft policy direction on new data centre connection policy, which seeks to mitigate some security of supply risk associated with the growth of data centre demand”.

The outcome of the consultation is expected to come this month.

MacEvilly said the Commission’s aim is “to ensure that data centres are part of the solution to the challenge they present”.

But a professor at Dublin City University said that it “would not be prudent to continue expanding our electricity demand with further large users such as data centres”.

Professor Barry McMullin told the committee that it will be essential to “minimise society-wide energy demand for at least the next two decades” to significantly reduce fossil fuel use and emissions.

In recent years, data centres have “contributed absolutely disproportionately to adding to Ireland’s overall total energy use” and the growth is happening “at a rate much greater than any other identifiable sector”.

Currently, there are around 70 data centres in Ireland, with another eight under construction.

An all-island analysis of energy generation capacity published by EirGrid and SONI in Northern Ireland in August found that the long-term demand predicted for Ireland is heavily influenced by the anticipated growth of large energy users, especially data centres.

The generation capacity statement outlined that data centres require a large amount of power and need the same amount of energy as a large town.

The demand from data centres could account for 27% of all of Ireland’s energy demand by 2029, the statement said.

Speaking to the Oireachtas Committee this afternoon, EirGrid’s chief executive Mark Foley said that data centres are a “critical part of the social and economic fabric of 21st century living”.

“I think what the regulator has been doing over the last couple of months and will be publishing, I believe, in the near term, will strike that right balance where the data centres can get connections and sign contracts with us into the future, but they’ll have to bring something to the party in terms of helping us work through the next number of years and the challenges that we have,” Foley said.

Professor McMullin told the committee that he believes we need to reassess our priorities as a society when it comes to the climate and the economy.

“We’ve spent 30 years basically saying that climate action is really really important and as long as the economy is going well, we’ll work on climate. I’m afraid we’ve run out of road on that and we now have to flip it and say, we have to achieve our climate targets,” McMullin said.

“We’ll keep as strong as possible an economy within that limit, but the first question every year should not be is the economy growing, the first question should be are our emissions falling at the level required.

“As long as the answer to that is yes, then all other economic choices are open, but if our emissions are not falling at the required rate, that should be no say this can only happen if there’s wider societal buy into this idea, but in my view this deep in the crisis, we don’t have a really good way forward unless we can reorient our priorities.”

Last week, Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore brought a motion to the Dáil calling for a moratorium on the development of data centres and on planning decisions for the centres until an economic, environmental and energy impact risk analysis is carried out.

A proposed amendment to the Planning and Development Act 2000 from People Before Profit has also called for restrictions on fossil fuel infrastructure and high-energy usage data centres.

Professor McMullin said he is concerned that if Ireland does not restrict the expansion in electricity demand, “then, in order to avoid those downs and blackouts, we will wind up building more additional fossil fuel generation capacity and running it”.

“There will be more emissions than there would have been, had we not built out those data centres and built corresponding fossil fuel infrastructure in order to be able to meet peak demand. The emissions will definitely be higher in that situation,” he said.

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“So, by not placing a moratorium on further – at least a temporary moratorium until we have a clear pathway that we can really confidently believe will reduce overall emissions fast enough – until we have that, then to me, expanding data centres is a bad idea.”

Winter supply

EirGrid’s annual generation capacity statement warned that Ireland could see electricity shortages over the next five winters due to rising demand and the closure of older power plants.

But chief executive Mark Foley told the Oireachtas Committee today that he does not expect shortages to be a problem this winter.

Foley said that two power plants in Huntstown and Whitegate which have been out of action should be in use again “very shortly”.

“They have secured the necessary parts and equipment, those parts are in Ireland, and we expect to have those plants back very very shortly,” he said.

“With those plants returning and the winter period being a time when we expect to have very high levels of wind on the system, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that there are very limited reasons for concern.

“We expect to have a secure supply over the winter period, and unless something exceptional occurs, people can sleep in their beds at night and be satisfied that they will have electricity.”

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Lauren Boland

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