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Data centres: We don’t need to be world leaders in these low-employment electricity vacuums

The State still listens to and parrots the arguments of self-interested, powerful sectors, leaving it to struggle to balance the needs of citizens, the economy and, now, the environment

About 20 years ago, I was working on an in-depth feature on Ireland’s phenomenal tech growth for a US national technology and business magazine and was asked to include a list of Irish tech sector statistics.

These would go into an accompanying tear-out fact card on Ireland. The magazine regularly profiled countries in this way and the removable cards were a series feature. I thought this gathering of bulletpoint numbers would be the easiest part of the package to complete. It turned out to be the most difficult.

I had to tell incredulous US editors that, in contrast to just about anywhere else in the world, official bodies in Ireland held few useful statistics on its tech sector. Even industry groups didn’t have much (and at any rate, statistics from industry lobby groups, consultancies and white papers demand caution).

Ireland was already internationally recognised as a tech sector phenomenon. I was asked, how in the world could the Government not be closely tracking this industry and its sectors? How could it understand the expanding value to the economy? How could it formulate targeted economic policy with so little grasp on one of its most important industries?


In recent weeks, I’ve felt the same mix of disbelief and exasperation over the State’s vagueness on data centres, a sector claimed to be a vital part of the economy, critical to the continuing presence of technology companies here. Yet the State can’t provide the public with basics such as the sector’s size, quantify the considerable demands it makes upon resources or believably defend its bloated growth.

Currently, estimates of the number and size of Ireland’s data centres come from private consultancies, primarily Bitpower, which estimates there are 82 centres (up from 75 a year ago), with all but five in the Dublin region (so much for decades of regional development plans). Most, 77 per cent, are particularly large “hyperscale” facilities.

When the Central Statistics Office wanted to get an independent handle on the number and size of centres to estimate their electricity consumption, it had to use meter data obtained from the ESB. “Data centres were not readily identifiable in the meter data so the CSO examined around 2.5 million meters to identify Meter Point Reference Numbers (MPRNs) that we considered were primarily being used for data centre activity”, the CSO states.

This analysis produced the recent headline figure that the sector eats up 18 per cent of Irish electricity annually (in the US, it’s 1.8 per cent), equal to the annual use by urban residences, in a country where we have enormous pressure on the electricity grid, are heavily reliant on unreliable and non-storable wind energy, are well behind on national carbon reduction commitments, and have no near-term way to address the shortfall except by increasing our carbon footprint.

A 2021 Environmental Research journal article looking at the environmental footprint of US data centres noted their huge electricity (and thus, environmental) demand, a calculation typically excluding additional “hidden” electricity consumption, particularly that needed to supply water to – and then treat wastewater from – centres, many of which use water for cooling.

Uisce Éireann told me most Irish data centres are air-cooled, with only normal business water usage. But 22 utilise water for cooling some days during the year. A spokesman could not quantify the amount of water used by the centres but noted the sector represents “a very small percentage of current and future non-domestic use” and increasingly utilises “water-efficient technology”.

So, the “hidden” water/electricity factor here is probably modest. But that’s a minor positive. Electricity consumption by data centres is going to expand significantly, putting further strain on the grid. Bitpower notes 14 more data centres are under construction, 40 more (40!) have planning permission, and those 40 alone will demand more electricity than the 82 operating now.

It’s ludicrous. Why do so many of these facilities have to be here? We have more per capita that anywhere else. We’re told it’s because they have to be near all the technology companies here.

The whole point of data centres is that for nearly every business scenario, data can be sent, held and managed anywhere, whether that involves managing the cloud offerings of the biggest multinationals or the data of schools, local businesses, or you and me. Of course we need some data centres, but we don’t need to be the world leader in these low-employment electricity vacuums.

More than a decade of poorly managed data centre growth in a country with weak infrastructure and a struggling national grid suggests little has changed since I went looking for reliable Irish tech sector statistics. There’s not enough independent data. Much comes from third parties with close industry ties, or industry groups. The State still listens to and parrots the arguments of self-interested, powerful sectors. And as a result, it strains to balance the needs of citizens, the economy and, now, the environment.