The demand for data centers is growing around the globe with the increasing attractiveness of online services such as streaming and video conferencing, especially during the ongoing corona pandemic. Ireland, where US Internet companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft already have their European headquarters, has also developed into the fastest growing market for data centers in Europe due to a stable climate that is neither too warm nor too cold as well as tax breaks. However, the boom is risky for the Irish power grid and the achievement of the country’s climate targets.
High electricity demand, not very sustainable
Ireland currently houses around 70 data centers. At full capacity, the servers in a single such large system can use as much electricity as 80,000 households. All data centers on the island currently require around 900 megawatts (MW). Energy researcher Paul Deane, who works for the Irish environmental research institute Marei, described this to the online magazine Gizmodo as a “serious problem for the energy system” of the EU state. The data centers are already responsible for at least eleven percent of all Irish electricity needs.
Deane points out that energy prices are already rising, which are currently troubling many European countries. The crisis also complicates the requirement to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to become climate neutral by 2050. The situation is likely to worsen by then: The Irish state network operator Eirgrid estimates that that nearly 30 percent of Ireland’s annual electricity needs will be generated by data centers by 2029.
Deane knows that data centers are indispensable for modern life. In a small country, however, they could threaten the sustainability of the entire energy supply and will lead to blackouts and bottlenecks for Irish consumers this winter. The main problem is size mismatch: “Data centers are big consumers of electricity and our grid is small. So if we connect more of them to a small grid, it has an undue impact.” For comparison: In Germany, the largest market for data centers in the EU in terms of volume, the systems will be Estimated to use less than five percent of the network capacity for power supply.
Effects on the climate
In Ireland there are already a disproportionate number of data centers, “which has an enormous impact on the climate,” confirmed Phoebe Duvall, planning officer at An Taisce. The Irish environmental organization, which is required by law to be involved in relevant construction projects, has therefore objected to several such initiatives. Many data center operators rely on green electricity. Ireland could “not put all of our renewable energies into new developments instead of decarbonising our existing energy system”.
“Host In Ireland”, a national association of data center providers, represents the industry as a climate protector. They go “hand in hand with the development of green electricity” in order to meet the “requirements for electricity availability”. For Deane, however, this falls short: If data centers are not able to store renewable energy on site or to flexibly distribute the demand for computing power worldwide, more power plants with fossil fuels would be needed. Nobody will simply switch off Facebook & Co. “just because it is dark or there is no wind outside”.
An Taisce therefore supports the call of the opposition Social Democrats for one Moratorium on the construction of data centers. This is necessary as long as their climate and energy effects have not been better researched and until more sustainability measures can be taken. Singapore recently embarked on this path. The Irish center-right government wants to examine the challenges. The country’s regulatory authority recently already made it mandatorythat new network connections for data centers must be compatible with the requirements for system stability and reliability of the power grid.
According to a recent study, the potential of data centers for the energy transition is still untapped. So far, their flexibility reservoir has hardly been raised. In Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Norway and the Netherlands alone, their electricity requirements are expected to almost double to around 5.4 gigawatts by 2030.
The Ampel government alliance wants new data centers to be operated in a climate-neutral manner by 2027. Such systems should be geared towards “ecological sustainability and climate protection” by using waste heat, for example, according to the red-green-yellow coalition agreement. In Frankfurt am Main, where one large data center is being built after the next, the city is also in danger of missing its climate targets due to the waste heat problem.