Data centres, Big Data & Ireland’s Energy Crisis

DCs in Ireland and the energy crisis they provoke

A short talk by the author, September 2021,
outside the Irish Parliament ( The Dáil )

Data Centres, New Fortress Energy and plans to import Fracked gas on the Shannon

There are two critical issues for the future of Ireland’s electric grid happening in parallel in the years 2017-2027 and they are pushing Ireland’s Electric grid (EIRGRID) toward locking in further fossil fuel consumption even as the planet burns. The first of these is the exponential expansion of infrastructure for commercial Internet in Ireland (everything from Instagram, LinkedIn, apps used for marketing surveillance etc…). These are the physical manifestation of “The Cloud” known in the industry as “DCs” (short for Data Centres); the second is New Fortress Energy’s plans to again try to build an LNG (Liquid Natural – Fracked – Gas) import terminal near Tarbert on the mouth of the Shannon.

While not directly related these two issues are becoming interlinked with New Fortress Energy’s plans to add Data Centres to their explosive new port plans and the Irish Government crying foul of electricity blackouts and closures of Peat power plants.

To understand how this could be happening in a Government with a Green Party Environment Ministry it is useful to take a mini deep dive into electrical energy in Ireland to resurface on the banks of the Shannon to stop New Fortress Energy’s Fossil Fuel infrastructure before it locks Ireland into more fossil fuel failure.

Energy Consumption in Ireland

Only a small amount of energy consumed in Ireland is transferred across electricity wires but electricity is growing in importance and so it should. Electricity is a flexible and essential means of transferring energy to society in a flexible form, it can be used for heat, for light, to charge phones, to power computers, washing machines and hospitals. The government of Ireland is providing grants for new home heating systems using electric pumps, new electric buses and cars. All good! But…

The basic principles of physics teach us that energy is never created (just transformed). Electricity needs to be “generated” from something, sometimes it can be stored, and then it is consumed, here we are going to look at new consumption of energy by DCs and how it is playing havoc with Ireland’s energy grid. Unlike fossil fuels electrical storage is difficult so most electrical energy is consumed instantly (as it is generated). The national electrical infrastructure is called the GRID, it consists of electrical cables and transformers fed by power plants. The operators of the grid see their job as supplying a “base-load”, minimal electricity consumption 24×7 and the ability to scale up to provide more for consumption peaks.

This load balancing is managed by the grid operators (EIRGRID in Ireland) to prevent blackouts and wasted electricity. It is a technical process which thinks little of the politics of consumption and like most key conventional economic systems in Ireland it is focused on growth and profit which is not good news for the environment.

Modern electricity demand is met by electricity generated in two different ways, centralised or distributed generation. Traditionally centralised generation has been common; it has been a lucrative essential business for about a century in Ireland. Centralised power plants are nodes on the electricity grid often powered by fossil fuels (but also by massive hydroelectric plants and Nuclear). Examples in Ireland include Moneypoint near Limerick, which is Ireland’s only coal-powered plant importing its filthy fuel from Colombia. Ireland also has a large-scale hydro-electric plant called Ardnacrusha, when it was first built by a soon-to-be-Nazi Siemens corporation in the 1930’s it provided all of Ireland’s electricity supply. Now Aughinish Aluminium, Europe’s largest export-focused aluminium smelting plant uses much of that electricity leaving about 3% of Ireland’s EIRGRID consumption provided by the Shannon’s water. Modern electricity generation can also be distributed, i.e. local and often renewable like small-scale wind farms, small scale hydro (water-based stream and river generators) and solar.

Both centralised and distributed electricity generation are good offering society a chance to move off consuming fossil fuels in some energy consumption sectors. Exceptions include flying (especially in Jet aircraft) many other transport sectors, cement production, and some forms of industrial agriculture. These are not easy to electrify and have strong vested interests in not moving off fossil fuels (using subsidies) but these sectors too need de-carbonisation. So we will need more electricity but we need to choose what it is used for.

Distributed generation can offer energy independence, and the possibility of an off-grid reality which is attractive to some. Alternatively centralised generation results in energy slavery, such is the case of renters in Ireland with no real control over how their electricity is generated, and little or no control over appliance consumption. To placate this large sector that can care about the climate renters are given pseudo-choices such as: turn heating on or off and pick alternate billing options from Websites like Switcher or Bonkers. In economic terms this reality is referred to as a natural monopoly (there is only one electricity connection to each house but many billing options) neoliberalism at its worst this choice is fantasy. Consumers pay more and more carbon tax on (electricity and gas) bills but have no control over where this is sourced, coal from Colombia or Fracked gas imported from the USA.

Electricity is the most adaptable means of transferring energy to both society and to the private industrial sector such as the global transnational corporations that operate in Ireland. EIRGRID in Ireland distributes electricity on the Island of Ireland. It a wholly public company, with an unnecessary corporate structure and one government shareholder (ready to be privatised).

EIRGRID brings power to residents, municipalities and to private industrial consumers in a ratio of about 2:1. I.e. one out of every three kilowatt hours of electricity consumed in Ireland goes to all homes and municipal needs (Street lights / DART / Government Offices / Hospitals etc…) If we are to fix fossil fuels in Ireland’s electrical grid we need to reduce dirty consumption in the industrial sector but in Ireland that sector is growing hugely due to new Data Centres DCs and this is beginning to cause blackouts.

Industrial energy consumption can vary based on government policy but the Irish government (like many countries) is neoliberal and so it typically hides such choices through layers of obfuscation and bureaucracy so the population which pays for the infrastructure in taxation has no idea what is going on. As citizens you need to know about such decisions, instead they are driven by certain industrial sectors using an (energy) market-driven approach (which favours powerful consumers). A similar approach is to Irish taxation policy such is the case with Apple Computers and the “national” studs.

Now that policy on energy is affected by environmental concerns (driven by EU and Paris Agreement ) the amount of electricity consumed by industry must drop and generation be replaced by renewables; this is not happening which is causing a crisis. To plan Ireland’s energy future requires social and ecological planning (something Ireland is really not good at) indeed a previous Taoiseach described us as the laggards of Europe in this matter. Ireland is addicted to fossil fuels; this need to change and we need to do it.

Industrial Consumers; the FAANGS & Ireland’s data Czar

This short piece deals with a major growth centre in private industrial electrical energy consumption focusing on both ends of this growth, supply (where the energy is generated) and consumption (what it is used for). Major changes in consumption are now happening in the IT sector which is currently Ireland’s largest multinational sector.

Ireland is the European base of many companies including many large platform operators like the FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix & Google) as well as many smaller companies each with their own “Hosting” or “Cloud” requirements for apps and online services like Netflix, pornography and gaming. All have online data storage requirements; this is provided by DCs. Data theoretically can be located anywhere on the globe but data is increasingly regulated in legislations (both “Ireland” and the “EU”) .

So why put the DCs in Ireland which has a limited grid and expensive electricity? To answer this question we need to see that the online economy is data mining; i.e. mining our thoughts. As that same former Taoiseach put it data is like gold. In fact data is the gold of the information economy (for more on this new form of data capitalism I recommend McKenzie Wark’s book: “Capitalism is dead, is this something worse”.

The rich and powerful like to keep their gold close and to have free control over what to do with it. The FAANGS are the largest corporations on the planet. Global companies take their business where they maintain global control over their wealth, which is why many companies located in Ireland for taxation reasons. Sometimes DCs are located for energy reasons but this is not the case with Ireland (though the companies are happy to cite Ireland’s cool weather and abundant water supplies as reasons they choose Ireland for efficient cooling of their data centres).

In reality the choice of location for data centres is a little more complex…

The FAANGS and others like to be able to transfer their data anywhere they want and to sell it to whomever they wish. Recently legislation, at an EU level, has made this a little more complicated for the FAANGS. EU data regulations such as GDPR (like tax regulations) are however still implemented at a state level for the whole EU. The state responsible is the state where the data is stored, in this case Ireland. Data is control, control of the regulator of your data allows you maintain that control; it’s like buying the bank where you store your gold. Thanks to people like Edward Snowden we now know that data, (all communications and metadata) are all mined by the private sector and by the State too (especially the US state). Even Angela Merkel’s private phone was being monitored by the US state, the UK is also part of the global 5-EYES spy network, States that share data for espionage.

Multinationals like to keep their data close but they also like to put it in legal jurisdictions where the government might be more flexible with how much control they might apply to their data and where it goes. In practical terms multinationals, especially in the IT industry, like to host in countries with flexible data czars. Ireland’s current data czar is Helen Dixon, she is the de-facto Europe’s data enforcer with a staff of less than 150 people. The data protection laws Ms Dixon’s staff attempt to regulate are listed on their Website here https://dataprotection.ie/en/who-we-are/data-protection-legislation (the list has not been updated since 2019).

While Ms Dixon is cited in the press calling for higher fines on TikTok and WhatsApp she is not always so adversarial. Her maintenance of EU’s citizen’s data has been criticised by Germany for example but Europe’s borders are as open to data as they are to others services and data on German citizens is Irish data if that EU data from Germany is kept in an Irish DC.

Building DCs is big business in a small country like Ireland. For details on the expansion of the major corporations in this sector in Dublin see the following articles detailing corporate rent and construction investments for office space and imagine this extended to DCs, a business which is key to certain local and international commercial real-estate investors: https://www.irishtimes.com/business/commercial-property/global-tech-giantsmake-
a-3-6m-sq-ft-impression-on-dublin-cityscape-1.4170472

What is a Data Centre and how are they powered

A Data Centre is a complex of buildings typically in an industrial estate with super connectivity to the Internet, to EIRGRID with trunk water connections and they’re located on natural gas pipelines. Inside these buildings are racks and racks of computers with disks that power the businesses of data mining, Web hosting and “The Cloud”. In practical terms this is vast array of computers on racks all interconnected, the lifeblood of the Internet. Accompanying this is a vast array of cooling and communication infrastructure. The cooling is very energy intensive (the computers get hot) so DCs are also a large consumer of water. In this report we are just focused on the energy consumption of DCs but the water issue is also critical.

A DC is typically powered by three elements: First they consume electrical power from EIRGRID similar to other industries like an hotel or a pharmaceutical company. But DCs are very power hungry. DCs need more energy and energy cost and reliability control is paramount. The second energy component of DCs is their own electricity generator, a permanent in-house electricity generators typically powered by natural gas (a fossil fuel) and a resource in Ireland that is in limited supply. So big DCs are actually small gas-fired power plants, industrial scale fossil-fuel gas consumers powering their own private grid. Sadly it does not end there, the third element of a DC’s power supply is a backup power supply typically powered by diesel. DCs are usually mandated by the Irish planning laws to have their own backup power supplies just in case and they can choose their own fuel. These are powered when other systems fail. When these diesel generators are fired up a DC is actually two power plants in one, both based on fossil fuels. Much more details on DC power and EIRGRID at the following Irish government source: Irish Commission for Regulation of Utilities report on DCs.

Data Centres in Ireland Now and in the Short-term future

DCs in Ireland and the energy crisis they provoke

Figure 1 Graphic from Hosting in Ireland report May 2021
( https://www.hostinireland.com/report )

EIRGRID’s Bill Thompson recently warned in the Irish Commission for Regulation of Utilities report on DCs that:

“The rate at which data centres are seeking to grow their load is unprecedented. Over the last 4 years we have seen annual increases in demand usage of around 600 GWh from data centres alone – equivalent to the addition of 140,000 households to the power system each year.”

“Connection Agreements are already in place for over 1,800 MW of Maximum Import Capacity (“MIC”) for data centres, with up to 2,000 MW of additional requests received… To put this in context Ireland has a current demand peak of around 5,500 MW”.

Over 2020, data centres saw a 27% increase in gas demand. Data Centres also currently consume 11% of energy from the grid and this is expected to rise to 27% by 2029 (note that this would be about triple the current consumption as the overall power consumption will likely rise too).


Emissions from Data Centres

Quantifying the emissions of these private DCs in Ireland isn’t easy but the graph below shows emissions data from 17 Data Centres that submit emissions reports for their facilities to the EU emissions trading system (EU ETS), a requirement for carbon credits. It should be noted that these are the self-declared emissions from the Data Centre facilities itself usually made up gas or diesel generators onsite and don’t included emissions from EIRGRID, the majority of emissions related to their activities.

The largest of the data centres declaring their emissions to the EU ETS is the EdgeConnex facility in Lucan, Dublin. It is the 45th highest CO2 emitter in the State according to the EU ETS system but this would only be accounting for some of its related emissions. For it’s main data centre building it is drawing 10MW from the national grid (not included in the ETS system) plus 8MW from gas turbines (see here)…

Projections for carbon emissions from data centres so far are limited although the Irish Academy of Engineering have estimated that by 2030 they’ll be adding at least 1.5 million tonnes to CO2 to Ireland’s carbon emissions.

Case Study, the EPA and Crag Digital

Last year Crag Digital’s data centre in Clondalkin became the first data centre to be issued with an industrial emission licence (IEL) from the EPA, as it’s energy generators are over the 50MW threshold (the size of a small city like Kilkenny).

As part of the IEL application however Crag Digital claimed that the C02 emissions from their eight gas boilers will be “Zero as natural gas supply is accredited as biogas by Gas Networks Ireland, hence minimising the use of natural resources”.

The problem with this assertion is it cannot be true as it would imply that just this one DC is using more biogas from the Irish national gas network than is currently available to put in for the entire natural gas supply of Ireland. The EPA should know this.

“The use of accredited biogas from Gas Networks Ireland will result in a reduced quantity of greenhouse gas emissions when compared with conventional generation of the c. 735,000MWhrs of electricity the data centre requires to operate each year. Whilst the proposed engines combust only natural gas, an agreement is being made to obtain bio-gas from Gas Networks Ireland for future use at the energy centre.”

However their Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) shows that they told GNI that by Year 3 of operation they would be using 1.7TWh of gas. Seeing as the current levels of biogas on the gas grid are tiny and the overall Government biogas target for 2030 is 1.6TWh, this is purely fictitious. 1.7TWh is a lot of gas accounting for about a 3% increase of current overall gas demand in the country (58.69TWh for 2020) reference, pg. 509.

Figure 2 Projected gas demand from Crag Digital data centre in a letter
between Gas Networks Ireland and Crag Digital

Despite Crag Digital only writing that “an agreement is being made to obtain bio-gas” the EPA inspector bought this, writing:

“Due to the efficient generation technology selected as well as the proposal to fuel the energy centre using accredited biogas, CO2 emissions associated with the installation will not have a significant impact on climate.

Given the quantity of climate altering substances that could be released from the activity, in a national context, I consider that the impact of any emissions from the installation on climatic considerations should be minimal. “

This statement from the EPA inspector is wishful thinking that this Data centre will have “minimal” impact on emissions.

So What to do?

First we need to get educated and second we need to stop New Fortress Energy and demand that our government change this deranged fossil fuel based power system in its tracks before it is too late. We need to unplug the data centres and demand that they provide clean energy to power their DCs or we won’t allow them to be built.

People before Profit have recently introduced a Bill calling for a ban on the building of data centres: https://www.irishexaminer.com/business/economy/arid-40315430.html currently this is being opposed by the Green Party: https://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/share/radio1/21969017

“by 2027, electricity demand from data centres will have risen to 31 per cent of total demand. One site alone, the Amazon data centre in Mulhuddart, Dublin, if the full plans for the site are realised, will consume an estimated 4.4 per cent of Ireland’s total energy demand by 2026. It will provide as few as 30 permanent jobs”

DCs were erroneously deemed strategic infrastructure and planning applications go directly to Bord Pleanála under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018.

DCs and the Natural Gas Shortage / New Fortress Energy

New Fortress energy have been told no they cannot build a new Liquid Natural Gas terminal on the Shannon but they didn’t take no for an answer and they plan to apply again by the end of the summer, which they did in mid September. This is really bad news and we need to stop them since them in 2021 and for the future.

Their latest plans for the proposed port are to include multiple data centres in their port infrastructure powered by the imported fracked gas from the United States but New Fortress Energy are good green-washers too promising to convert some of their operations to renewable hydrogen gas imports which will already be too late for the environment and is just technical fantasy. This same strategy has been used as an excuse in the UK for continuing to expand the gas pipeline infrastructure (it will be converted to green Hydrogen) while telling the world that the UK will reduce fossil fuel use. In the US the excuse is to pipe out CO2 an equally unfeasible project.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*