Time for joined up thinking on Ireland’s green digital future

Data centres, green energy and non-stop digital exports – Ireland needs to play to its strengths in digital and renewable resources, urges Gary Connolly from Host In Ireland.

Instead of maligning data centres as merely vast consumers of electricity, their role in keeping Irish exports alive during the Covid-19 crisis needs to be better appreciated and understood.

That’s the view of Gary Connolly, president and founder of Host in Ireland, who argues that the country is on the edge of realising the value of a vastly untapped resource that could fuel the global digital boom as well as keeping the lights on.

“Ireland needs to look at renewable energy as an asset. We can, if we desire, generate enough renewable energy to provide at least 5pc of Europe’s capacity”

Connolly urges that the opportunity to harness Ireland’s renewable energy resources like onshore and offshore wind as well as solar needs to be grasped. Moreover, joined up thinking is needed to realise the connection between the clean energy goals of tech giants and an abundance of resources that could be exported to Europe from these shores.

“From Netflix to Zoom to homeschooling, data centres are creating and maintaining the new normal amidst a global pandemic. With this added purpose comes added responsibility both to global citizens and towards the decarbonisation of Ireland’s electricity supply,” Connolly said.

“The growth of the Irish data centre industry will go hand-in-hand with the development of green electricity to meet power availability demands. Wind generation is virtually an untapped resource of green electricity within Ireland’s borders and coastline and provides limitless opportunities for both Ireland and the industry,” Garry continued.

Toward sustainable data centres

A new report from Host in Ireland, in association with Bitpower, projects that due to the de-carbonisation of the electricity grid and renewable first purchasing policies of the Irish data centre industry, data centre CO2 will level off at about 2.2pc of Ireland’s total emissions by 2025. The increase is expected to slow further as the transition to renewable electricity generation accelerates in order to meet the targets in the government’s Climate Action Plan. 

Using data from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and EirGrid, the report provides an in-depth analysis of the impact of data centres on Ireland’s carbon emissions historically and also looks ahead to the next five years.

The model predicts that by the end of 2025, there will be 1,700 MW of data centre capacity operational in Ireland. It also takes into account the SEAI historical data showing the CO2 per unit of electricity has almost halved over the past 15 years and the impact that has on CO2 attributable to data centres in Ireland in the future. 

The Q1 2020 Report also explored the effect of COVID-19 on data centre development activities and found a 10-15pc impact on data centre investment projects. While demand remains strong, this will result in €200 million spend being delayed due to the pandemic. Host in Ireland still anticipates an additional €6.7 billion in investment in the industry by 2025. 

“As the data centre industry evolves and the renewable energy targets set out by the government come into clearer focus, it is important to ensure the models we put forth in the Host in Ireland Quarterly Report are constantly improving,” said David McAuley, founder and CEO, Bitpower. “In Q1 2020, we revisited our database to fine-tune the numbers based on the latest information. This provided an opportunity to examine the impact of Covid-19 on investments in the industry, the carbon impact of data centres and the scale and growth of the industry as a whole, making the report more accurate and timely than ever before.”

Time to connect Ireland’s green dots and dashes

Smiling man in grey suit.

Gary Connolly, president and founder of Host in Ireland

Speaking with ThinkBusiness Host in Ireland’s Gary Connolly pointed out that there are enormous untapped opportunities to be gleaned by embracing the opportunities that both data centres and renewable energy represent.

He pointed out that when the country went into lockdown the more than 30 data centres in Ireland continued to support the country as silent manufacturing operations that exported billions of euros worth of software and other services that generated tax returns for the exchequer.

Moreover, he urges Ireland to consider the export opportunity of green energy. Connolly pointed out how data centres in cities like Stockholm are already using their excess energy to heat housing districts and said the same is possible in Ireland.

“Ireland needs to look at renewable energy as an asset. We can, if we desire, generate enough renewable energy to provide 5pc of Europe’s capacity. We have a vast seascape as well as enough landscape to generate renewable energy that can be exported.

“We need to look at onshore and offshore wind as an asset for the betterment of the overall job and economic activity in Ireland.

“By 2030 up to 70pc of our energy will come from renewable sources. But that will come from just 5pc or 6pc of the potential generational capacity that we have.

“If this was gold or diamonds in the hills, would they still be there? Renewable energy is feeding into every possible global narrative and you can take advantage of this asset to not only power green data centres and the jobs and economic benefits they bring, but realise we are only harnessing a tiny percentage of our green energy capacity. If you think about green electrons and how they could also mean green data, we need to appreciate how this could be both an economic and job multiplier.

“All of the data companies that are in Ireland today – including players like Microsoft, IBM, Google, Facebook – have been steadily exporting throughout this crisis and have been generating a return for the exchequer. All of these companies have ambitions to be carbon negative within the next few years.

“As the industrial world hurtles towards Industry 4.0 we also need to realise that there are billions of people online, there are 25bn devices in the world today generating data. Ireland needs to play up to its green credentials and harness the opportunity to generate green energy and green data,” Connolly urged.

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 28 May, 2020