What’s the story with data centres?

Source: Greennews.ie

27 August 2021

They’ve been popping
up all over the country. Opposition has been mounting against them. But they
still are pretty mysterious and complicated to understand.

So we think it’s
definitely time they had their own explainer.

Just so we’re on
the same page – what are data centres?

They are the physical
storage centres for the online, digital aspect of our world.

Basically everything
we do online – browsing the web, storage in the cloud, streaming videos – has
to be stored somewhere. Just like an external hard drive stores documents from
your own computer, servers in data centres store digital information at scale.
They are housed in large, industrial looking complexes.

There are now 70 operational data centres in
Ireland
and Dublin has
become the largest data centre hub in Europe.

These centres are
often incorrectly seen as a part of the “green future,” according to Geography
Lecturer in Maynooth University, Dr. Patrick Bresnihan, but their impacts “are also
very much related to fossil fuels.”

He stressed that the
“idea of the cloud really needs to be brought down to earth, quite literally.”

Okay, so they are
powered by fossil fuels. What other problems do they have?

Data centres use a lot
of power and water.

A
report
from Eirgrid suggests that data centres and other large energy users
could be using up to a third of the national grid by 2030. Planning and
Environmental Policy Officer at An Taisce Phoebe Duvall warned that this is “serious
issue in terms of security of our energy supply.”

“Worst case scenario: there
could be rolling blackouts and heavily grid constraint areas like Dublin as a
result of data centres,” she told The Green News.

The energy that fuels
data centres can come from both renewable sources, like wind, and non-renewable
sources, like gas. There is clearly a more climate-friendly option between the
two, but even in that case it continues to add pressure to the grid.

For data centres that
are powered by non-renewable sources like liquified natural gas, an additional
strain is placed on the energy supply. These projects see data centres powered
by fracked gas and fossil fuels – an action that has seen criticisms and protests.

The Eirgrid report didn’t
mention water or take into account the additional stress placed on the water supply. But
data centres are big water users – the servers have to be cooled down somehow.

So while Ireland seeks
to reduce emissions, energy use, and faces stresses on the water supply, data
centres add pressure to Ireland’s resources.

The other big concern
raised are the jobs.

People Before Profit
TD Bríd Smith stressed that these centres don’t bring the number or kind of jobs
that would benefit the local community. She said there are jobs created in the
initial construction work, once they are in operation but there is a “very
limited amount of staff will be applied in any long term or permanent basis.”

“These things run
themselves so big, powerful machines, that are programmed more or less to run
themselves,” she added.

I’ve heard about a
proposed data centre in Ennis – What’s the deal there?

Environmental campaigners have called it a “climate disaster waiting to happen.”

Futureproof Clare
member, Emanuela Ferrari outlined the proposed usage from the planning
application. During hot weather, the site would use one million litres of water
a day. “That’s about half the water Ennis would consume, from a conservative
estimation,” Ms. Ferrari warned.

The energy consumption
of this plant would be 200 megawatts. That’s the equivalent to 210,000 homes.
Fellow Futureproof Clare member, William Hederman put that energy usage into
context.

He said that if all of
Ireland went on a big climate action drive, and “we all reduce our energy
consumption by 10 per cent, that entire slating will be wiped out by this one
project in Ennis.”

The campaigners are also
sceptical about the number of jobs that would be created from this site. There
are 250 permanent jobs proposed, plus further spinoff jobs. But Mr. Hederman is
doubtful.

There have been over 50 submissions with over 250
signatures
, in response
to this proposal. Now, they are awaiting a decision, which is due to be made on
September 9th

Why are there so many in Ireland?

There’s more than one
answer to this. The three biggest reasons, though, have to do with Ireland’s
climate, the influence of tech companies and the political response to them.

Ireland’s cooler
climate is attractive for data centres. The servers are prone to heat up, so it’s
critical for them to be built in a place that has cooler, consistent
temperatures.

But this is something
that may have been over emphasised. Mr. Hederman said that “there are quite a
few European countries where it will be less carbon intensive than Ireland” and
added that “there is a disproportionate amount of data in Ireland.”

To understand why that
is, we have to look at history that begins before there was the cloud or video
streaming services.

“Data centres have to
be put in a much longer picture,” Dr. Bresnihan urged. They’re the most recent
manifestation of a policy which goes back to the sixties and seventies. This
sees “Ireland doing what it can to attract foreign companies to locate here.”

Lastly, data centres
are approved on a county council basis. There isn’t a national policy in place
to respond to them.

So though the area
around the site might be assessed, it affects more than the adjacent community.
“That makes no sense for energy and climate impact,” said Ms. Duvall.  She urges that the impacts of the data centre
“are not confined to that site.”

Deputy Smith echoed
Ms. Duvall’s point of the influence of this industry.

“Data centres don’t
have chimney stacks, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have huge carbon
footprints,” she said.

So are you saying
that data centres shouldn’t be here, but they should be in other places?

No, not necessarily.
It is a tricky balance to meet – data centres are necessary for our online
life, but they place a lot of stress where they’re located.

“You can put the data
centre somewhere else, but even if you put it somewhere else, that doesn’t
negate the fact that you’re still increasing energy demand and emissions,” Ms.
Duvall told The Green News.  

The campaigners and
experts recognised the need for them, but were cautious at the rate of their
growth. But that doesn’t mean that it should be outsourced to another country.

“This kind of environmental damage doesn’t
know any boundaries,” said Ms. Farrari. “So, we are broaching that discourse
that we need something that should be tackled globally.” 

Alright, I think I
have a good understanding at this point. Last question – what is being done to
address data centres?

Despite an Oireachtas committee being told that the current approach to data centres is
‘appropriate’
, there
are both campaigners on the ground and policy proposed to counter the data
centres.

Futureproof Clare is
among one of the many organisations building public support to oppose these
data centres. Most recently, they hosted a webinar to get the information out.

Dr. Bresnihan also
thinks this accountability should extend beyond the energy providers as well
and said that “the tech companies that are either developing the data centres
directly or using the data centres need to take or have much more of a
responsibility for the energy that goes into powering them.”

Deputy Smith believes
this issue is a “litmus test” for the Irish government. She has proposed a bill
tabled last June that would effectively ban data centres and LNGs. If passed,
the bill would require the planning authorities to take
account of the carbon in the atmosphere. If the rate is over 350 parts per
million, the planning cannot be granted.

She urged that this would “effectively ban both
LNG’s and data centres as long as we are in a climate emergency.”

“It is still utterly
wrong for us to have such a proliferation of saturation of data centres in the
country,” urged Deputy Smith. “There’s no other country that would allow it.”

By Sam Starkey

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