Tuesday, 27 October 2015

‘The Cloud’ Bytes Back - how Data Centres will cost Ireland dearly

Guest Post By David Hughes B. Arch CPMA, RIAI RIBA 

Cloud computing is now part of everyday life. From streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix to search engines and email from companies like Google and Yahoo to online storage services like DropBox… ‘The Cloud’ is both everywhere and yet seemingly invisible.

However in spite of its name, ‘The Cloud’ has some very earth bound needs and truly massive energy requirements. In fact, somewhat aptly, ‘The Cloud’ has overtaken world aviation in terms of its overall energy demand. 

These days Ireland seems to be a preferred location for the cloud’s physical footprint - data centres. These data centres will not simply serve Ireland’s data needs but the needs of all of Europe and beyond. This multiplies their energy impact on Ireland enormously and when you analyse the consequences, it is hard to see any silver lining.

To give an example Apple are seeking permission for a 240MW data centre in Athenry Co. Galway, which will create up to 215 jobs. The electricity consumption of this data centre will be the same as 420,000 Irish homes. This is ¼ of all Irish homes or every single house in Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire, Fingal and South County Dublin combined. Basically, the electricity needs of 1 Million people.

Electricity is a very expensive and capital-intensive form of energy. For every kWh coming out of a socket 2.7 kWh of Primary energy needs to be inputted at source. The transmission and distribution infrastructure or ‘grid’ is also massively expensive. This cost is ‘socialised’ and can account for 75% of a domestic electricity bill.

Cost Benefit Analysis?

As a society we may accept such costs to provide a benefit to 420,000 homes but is it really justifiable to socialise the same demand again for only 215 jobs? And Apple is only but one data centre.

Facebook’s 108MW centre will only create 40 jobs and use the energy of 180,000 homes.

In fact in total 1,000MW of data centres are projected for Ireland so on a pro rata basis will use the same energy demand as every home in Ireland.

40% Renewable Commitment.

In 2009 Ireland made a commitment to generate 40% of electricity from renewables. If we add this level of extra demand this makes that target much harder to achieve.

Last year the EPA stated that in relation to our 20:20:20 targets, we are only likely to achieve reductions of between 5% and 12% instead of the full 20% required. The SEAI calculates that the fine for this could be €1.6 Billion per annum.

The full 1,000MW of data centres could add 37% to overall electricity demand and will make our renewable targets proportionally harder to reach, the fines even higher again and last but not least will undo all of the CO2 savings to date.

In the end, trying to chase this growing demand from data centres, will spawn further Wind Farms, Pylons and Transmission lines and will leave the Irish with a second  ‘Universal Social Charge’ this time for either paying an EU fine or paying for the ‘grid’ or both.

Time for a Debate.

Given these figures it’s time for a debate on ‘The Cloud’ in Ireland. Are the numbers of jobs created in anyway justified in terms of its energy demands?

The responsibility seems to fall between a myriad of different agencies and departments pursuing different agendas but each with a focus too narrow to look at the bigger picture. As a result to date, data centres have slipped through the net unchallenged.

We are at a cross roads in terms of whether we follow a route of demand reduction or increase, however ‘The Cloud’ could create the perfect storm and sink Ireland into decades of legacy costs for very expensive and unnecessary electrical infrastructure, which could be just as painful as paying back the inflated property prices that lead to the bank bailout.


  1. David Hughes has done us all a timely service by bringing this to public attention before it is too late. It is up to everybody to now make sure that this issue is brought to the attention of current public representatives - otherwise the USC-2 he predicts will come to pass as sure as night follows day! Next year will not cut the cake - the opportunity will have passed.

  2. It seems we are living in a parallel universe where everything is a good idea, everything is not mutually exclusive ,we can have our cake and eat it, and all roads lead to utopia. Analysis is unheard of , contradictions can be overcome with PR and a feel-good it will be OK belief. Recently I was told by a polish person that only in Ireland would a company build a new safe and forget to check it's operation before putting millions of euros in it.
    Unfortunately for many, we live in the real world, but we have to pay for every big idea that politicians come up with and then clean up the mess after they are long gone on big pensions.

    1. I must add An excellent pre-emptive article by David

  3. Interesting article. Written and read in the "cloud" ironically enough.
    Yes, data centres will create additional energy demand. Yes, this will push up the relative requirement for renewable energy.
    Are we supposed to only promote industry in Ireland that does not require energy?
    If we shut down Intel that would get rid of 166MW of oil and gas combustion. We could stop smelting aluminum in Aughinish (1,426 MW of thermal combustion).
    Yes, there needs to be careful planning about the energy supply for industry, but where does this end?
    It is not yet realistic to have economic and jobs growth that is decoupled from growth in energy consumption. Can economic growth be decoupled from carbon.. now that's a different question entirely.

    1. Well you would have to weight up cost and benefits. Is creating another County Dublin sized demand worth it for 200 jobs ? Also, how can the government push their de-carbonization policy while at the same time promote data centres ? Another example of our incoherent energy policy.

  4. Observations of the Galway data centre planning application closes on 4th November 2015. The application admits it will increase co2 emissions, but that will be abated by wind energy. Nonsense of course. Irish taxpayers will have to pay fines, EPAW held a meeting to decide if we would object but decided not to. The reason is that all EPAW objections are aimed at getting to challenge An Board Pleanala in court on the lack of compliance with the Aarhus Convention and the SEA Directive. Irish planning is viewed by us as just a formality en-route to court. Data centres do not come under the SEA Directive or Aarhus, so we would gain nothing by objecting. BioXL makes a good point, that we seem to be pursuing only jobs with wind turbines in toe. How can we have jobs without using fossil energy? The EU has 2 ways round that. They claim wind will abate the emissions (grand until someone measures the emissions), and to move production to China and India (British steel closures).