Opinion pieces

Now is the time to enshrine a pathway to net zero in law for data centres

The national carbon budget recently approved by the government mandates that Ireland should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 51 per cent by 2030 when compared to 2018 levels. This is one of the most ambitious targets in the world, and it requires action to decarbonise across all sectors of the economy.

In order for Ireland to deliver on its carbon budgets, the projected impact on our emissions targets from energy growth needs to become a key indicator, and that is especially the case when it comes to new data centres.

A new study led by Dr Paul Deane, senior researcher in clean energy futures at University College Cork, has looked at this issue and found that the growth of data centres in Ireland represents a challenge to national emissions reduction targets as well as security of supply. The study was commissioned by the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament.

Following the approval of our overall carbon budgets last year, the government is now reviewing its data centre strategy to ensure the sector aligns with sectoral emissions ceilings.

For its part, the data centre share of national electricity consumption has accelerated sharply in recent years. Figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show data centres in Ireland consumed more electricity in 2021 than every rural household combined. They currently emit over 1 million tonnes of C02 per year or 2 per cent of Ireland’s emissions, equivalent in emissions terms to one large peat-fuelled power station. By 2027, Eirgrid estimates data centres could account for up to 7 per cent of energy-related carbon emissions.

Many data centres in Ireland have set ambitious targets to achieve net-zero emissions or 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2030, and this should be encouraged. However, as Dr Deane and team point out, renewable energy targets have up until recently been used as a “proxy for climate action” by data centre operators. Today, the focus at the national and European policy levels is and should be on emissions reduction and net-zero targets.

Moving the focus away from renewable energy targets makes sense because, as more data centres come online, overall sectoral emissions will increase regardless of the percentage target set for renewable energy use. Carbon emissions produced, rather than renewable energy consumed, is therefore a stronger metric of climate action for data centres than renewable energy targets. This is another key finding of the UCC study.

Framing our national climate ambition around carbon budgets requires a level of knowledge about annual and cumulative emissions across sectors. That is why we should support this study’s recommendation and encourage large data centre owners to disclose annual emissions and projections of future emissions. As sectoral emissions talks are ongoing, now is a good time to enshrine a pathway to net zero in law for data centres that is consistent with our Climate Action Plan. As considerable energy consumers and emissions producers, data centres must play their part. Relevant Irish authorities, such as the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, should advise in parallel on the projected impact of new data centre projects on national emissions.

In addition, urgent and significant investment in the Irish power grid is needed. It has been suggested that onsite generation of electricity from fossil fuels at data centre locations is a solution to improve energy security. However, this simply shifts the location of where emissions are produced rather than reducing them, this study argues. It may also increase emissions as smaller onsite generators are less efficient than larger, grid-scale fossil fuel plants. As an alternative, this study recommends a reliable and 100 per cent renewable power system, which would significantly reduce data centre emissions over time. Investment will be needed to build this system, but we will also meet renewable energy targets and improve energy security along the way.

Data centre operators can implement other measures to reduce their emissions and their impact on Ireland’s energy supply. Above all, they need to show flexibility in their operations. Such measures include load shifting by time, load shifting by location, back-up generation, and back-up energy storage. The ability of data centres to reduce their consumption will vary, however. That is why it is up to Eirgrid to instruct data centres with flexible demand to reduce their load in situations where security of energy supply is at risk.

The climate impact of data centres is also under scrutiny at the European level. The revision of the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) will introduce an obligation for EU countries to monitor the energy performance of data centres, with the aim of creating a set of “Data Centre sustainability indicators”. Ireland should take a leading role in developing these indicators in negotiations with EU countries and institutions. We Irish lawmakers in Europe should also heed this study’s suggestion and develop policies that better integrate data centres into our energy systems. One example of this is using waste heat from data centres to warm our buildings, via District Heating.

Ireland will remain an attractive location for international companies that consider establishing data centres in the future. While the value of the long-term jobs created by these centres when compared with their energy and environment impact is a concern, the service provided by data centres in powering our modern lives is without question. Online working during the pandemic facilitated by data, significantly reducing our travel needs, is just one example of this. A low-carbon future, in part enabled by data, is in sight.

While the data centre moratorium is ongoing in the Dublin area, we have some breathing room to redefine our priorities when it comes to considering data centre planning applications. The Ukraine war and the associated fossil fuel crisis have further amplified the urgent need to move to renewables and deliver on our carbon budgets. Now is the time to integrate decarbonisation plans into the data centre planning application process, and make critical investments in our energy grid, as recommended by this study.


July 25, 2022

first published

Business Post

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