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Bríd Smith: Expansion of data centres is not going to help our serious energy woes

The People Before Profit TD says our fondness for data centres is driven by misplaced servility to the whims of corporates.

Bríd Smith People Before Profit TD

Updated Oct 6th 2022, 11:50 PM

IN RECENT DAYS more dire warnings of possible power cuts have been issued by state bodies.

These are adding to the stress and anxiety many people feel as they head into an uncertain winter of astronomical energy price hikes. Many will wonder how this double whammy of possible power shortages and massive energy cost increases can have happened.

I believe both are intimately linked and that the solution to both is ultimately a reversal of the disastrous policy of liberalisation of energy systems and the creation, since the 1990s, of a competitive market based on profit-seeking private companies.

This was a policy driven in Ireland by Fianna Fáil, and subsequently Fine Gael. Mary O’Rourke, the then Fianna Fáil Minister said on the introduction of the Electricity Regulation Bill 1998 (which opened up 28 per cent of the Irish electricity market to competition) that it would: “herald a new dawn for Ireland as we face into the next century.” It did. We went from the cheapest most efficient model for energy generation and supply to the current crisis where we are at the mercy of private corporations, profiteering and missed renewable energy targets.

‘This is not normal’

But the immediate question of why this state, seemingly unique in Europe, could face power cuts in the coming winters, seems harder to answer. Recent statements from state bodies with responsibility are contradictory.

EirGrid appears to blame the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU) and “market failures” and even suggests that data centres can be a solution to the crisis. The CRU meanwhile seem to blame surging power demand, while Fianna Fáil has bizarrely put the finger on the ESB, and the lack of competition in the market.

Some recent announcements contain at least one very serious and misleading statement. That is the idea that Ireland’s power demands are “normal” and what you would expect from a “prosperous” country. It is in no way normal.

When Covid related peaks and troughs are excluded Ireland is unique in the EU in having power demand increase by 9% over the last five years. The EU average for 27 nations is flatlining, while many comparative nations have seen declines in electricity demand over the same years. Here, it has gathered speed.

There is a bizarre and telling symmetry between the amount of emergency energy this state is desperately trying to install to avoid power cuts and the expected new demand from eight hyper-scale data centres. These eight data centres have approval, are being built as we speak and will be connected to the national grid in the coming years. There are many more planned and demanding connections outside of these even with CRUs new minimal restrictions.

The policy of data centre facilitation is utterly insane and driven only by a craven and misplaced servility to the whims and wishes of corporate and IT interests. No other nation facing the choices we do would have such an unquestioning and obedient attitude to a sector that is almost single-handedly driving energy demands and simultaneously making our climate targets even less likely to be reached.

By 2030, 30% of all the state’s electricity will be consumed by data centres – it is currently 15%. Both figures represent a massive outlier in a global context. The love and affection with which this sector is held by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is truly astonishing- witness one recent government decision to overrule South County Dublin Council’s ban on new centres. The arguments used are threadbare and often contradictory.

Who do the centres serve?

The centres themselves do not provide massive numbers of jobs, those figures often include all work done in a wider sector of IT and communication. The case is presented as if any restriction on them will result in a mass exodus of IT corporations.

The scaremongering is similar to any conversation around corporation tax. Such hysteria can be expected from the sectors directly involved in defending their position. It is less understandable from representatives of the people and their institutions.

The other claims for data centres should at the very least deserve more inspection. They vary from greenwashing attempts to hyperbole over what they actually do. Multinationals purchasing energy from massive privately-owned wind farms here – power that we need to electrify our transport systems or to produce hydrogen – is not a ‘win-win’ for us all.

We are also told that we will lose our streaming devices, emails, or ability to post on Twitter if we don’t facilitate more and more data centres. The amount of data centre capacity we have is sufficient for many generations of data use here. While global averages of energy use by such centres are between 2-4%, Ireland remains way beyond any sensible levels of energy demand from this sector. The real issue we need to examine is what proportion of what these centres do is useful and productive for our society.

While much of what goes on is shrouded in secrecy we do know some 50% plus of data stored is what’s known as “dark data”- largely useless and unused data. A lot of the rest is based on surveillance capitalism and its insistence on storing and commodifying our every interaction online in the form of advertising.

This may benefit those companies involved in selling us stuff, but it’s of questionable service to most of humanity and we should have a serious conversation about whether such practices are allowed, useful and worth driving energy demand further into dangerous territories in terms of the climate crisis and energy usage.

As we face into the next uncertain few winters a basic fact has to be addressed – the data centre sector here will connect more hyper-scale centres whose total energy demand will outstrip the projected and feared shortfall in power we need for our homes, business and farms.

The most obvious solution is not to double down on purchasing or building new fossil fuel infrastructure. Instead at the very least, pause any new connections to data centres and start a serious conversation about the future of such centres in a time of an unprecedented climate and energy crisis.

Bríd Smith is a People Before Profit TD for Dublin South Central.

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About the author:

Bríd Smith  / People Before Profit TD

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