Never has there been a more collective communal celebration than the historic Irish Water Movement of late August 2015. Over 150,000 people were remarked as partaking in the march to stop the introduction of additional charges on public Irish water.
Seven years on and the debacle is still centred on water but now data centres have entered the fray and corporate entities’ demand is only growing on our national resource. As data centres populate the country naturally it has led to additional demand for not just water but also extra pressure on the electrical grid, which is speculated to inhibit Ireland from reaching its climate obligations.
As society becomes more immersed in the digital world via mobile phones, laptops and other smart devices, the data resulting from this online activity has an impact, which is the requirement for physical storage centres e.g. data centres in order to support our societal use.
Data Centre Impact on Electricity –
Data centres were pioneered, integrated and encouraged by the current and recent political establishment, which will have an impact on energy consumption, water conservation and overall sustainability. Data centres in 2020 consumed approximately 2% of electricity globally, which is expected to rise to 8% by 2030.
There are over 70 operational data centres in Ireland using 900 megawatts, (MW) with eight under construction with 250MM usage. Across Greater Dublin, there is a vast array of data centres which has secured our nation the title of the largest data hub in Europe.
Why should you care?
Remember that song that had constant radio play Despacito? Well it was estimated that the music video amassed 5 billion streams on YouTube, in 2018. The energy consumption was equivalent to powering 40,000 US homes a year. (now exceeding 7.4billion views) For every Netflix stream, Instagram post and Youtube video that we ogle between there is a corresponding data centre.
A recent article by GreenNews.ie addressed the myth that these data centres are environmentally friendly “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.”
According to Host in Ireland’s biannual report, which stated that carbon emissions emitted from data centres was 1.85% of Ireland’s overall carbon emissions in 2020. There has been a 25% increase in the number of operational data centres in Ireland over the last year. The emissions are expected to remain stable according to the same report. The sector is dominated by mammoth data companies, such as; Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft, who are all allegedly committed to using 100% renewables and net-zero emissions.
The data centre Industry is accredited with €132 billion in ICT exports in Ireland. Subsequently, after the three successive lockdowns that impacted Irish society over the last eighteen months during the pandemic, the need for companies to have a strong online presence is abundantly clear. Inevitably this requirement for modern business will play a part in the large number of data centres that will be built over the next five-ten years in order to meet demand from the largest data companies.
Ireland’s milestone is to reach 70% renewable electricity by 2030. Last year, Ireland made a historic step towards this by achieving 43% of electricity generated from renewable sources. The data centre industry consumes approximately 11 per cent of the energy generation on the grid currently. A forecast of the future market structure speculates that the increase on the grid by data centres will amount to 28% in 2028, as the number of facilities approximately doubles in Ireland. (5) A symbiotic relationship between society/ environment, data centre companies and renewable energy providers is a must if Ireland is to achieve its goals of becoming a more environmentally friendly nation on this planet.
Data Centre Impact on Water –
As Ireland emerges from a bout of Mediterranean weather, the frequent and annual call for water conversion was bellowed across the public service provider and mainstream media. However, there are dozens of data centres that are operating across the country with cooling systems that can use 500.000 litres of water a day, which will only increase and enter the realm of millions of litres, as degrees soar over 25C. The use of water by data centres is dependent on a few factors, such as; temperature and the type of cooling system in place.
For example, the EnergyNode facility in County Meath was approved earlier in the summer it is alleged that it will have an “imperceptible” impact on the local water supply, while it would require 1.3 million litres to boost cooling on days when temperatures exceed 25C. According to figures collated by the Sunday Business Post, which stated that on a rare occasion a data centre could use up to 5 million litres of water per day.
In 2019, Facebook’s data centre used 395 million litres of water and this site based in County Meath is currently under expansion. Facebook claim their water facilities are amongst the most efficient in the world and are still under development. According to planning documentation during peak demand, one data centre in Dublin filed that it could use up to 4.5 million litres of water a day, although such volumes would only equate to around 5% of the year. This information captured by the SBP stated that Amazon sought permission for a centre in Dublin 17 that could use 296,000 litres of water a day, a facility on Belgard Road could use 319,680 litres per day and one in Blanchardstown could use 328,8000 litres per day.
Newer data centres are thought to be utilising water-efficient technology which minimises their requirement for water in their cooling processes operating in a more sustainable manner deploying a water conservative approach.
Duncan Smith, the Labour spokesperson on climate action, previously stated in an interview with the Independent “if better cooling technology was available, Irish Water should insist that all existing data centres retrofit.” As alluded to by Duncan Smith, the call on the public to reduce and conserve water usage is understandable, however, corporations are yet to be challenged on their extraction of this national resource.
Ireland’s naturally cool climate and highly educated workforce is a selling point that surely played a part in the decision by multinationals to establish data centres all across the nation. The vivid impact of climate change is visible all across the globe over the last few weeks in Canada, Haiti, Turkey and Germany to name a few.
When looking to the future there is an apparent need to develop stringent regulations surrounding the water on and surrounding the island of Ireland, as people must take precedent over private enterprise not just nationally but globally. Data centres are another addition to an ever-expanding list of corporate entities that are draining the clean water of Ireland, which could detrimentally impact future generations as we continue to plunder national resources.
Back in 2020, Amazon Web Services announced backing for a 91.2MW windfarm in Donegal and a 23.2MW windfarm in Cork. This progressive move by a global titan and investment in the future of renewable energy infrastructure for Ireland is surely beneficial, however, one must hold companies accountable for their additional demand on the water and electricity supply instead of calling on the average citizen. The erratic weather patterns that are accentuated due to climate change is another factor that one must be cognizant of in planning for the future.
Patrick Bresnihan, professor in Geography at Maynooth University stated in an interview with the Guardian that Ireland’s reliance on big tech companies should not obscure their environmental cost. “If they left Ireland would be in a pretty bad situation but there’s only so long you can put off these contradictions.”
Written By: Stephen O’Brien
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