Behind every TikTok, Zoom call, and cat meme is a data center that stores, processes, or reroutes that data around the world. The more we do online, the bigger these data centers and their energy footprint get.
At full capacity, servers within a modern “hyperscale” (aka “massive”) data center can use as much power as 80,000 households. Although the data center industry is global, places with the right combination of stable climate and friendly regulations attract outsized attention from data center developers. Ireland is one of these places. The island nation hosts 70 data centers and is now the fastest-growing data center market in Europe. Unfortunately, supplying the equivalent of several extra cities worth of electricity to servers that aid your doomscrolling is starting to take a toll on Ireland’s power grid.
Data centers already use around 900 megawatts of electricity in Ireland. According to Paul Deane, an energy researcher working with the MaREI Environmental Research Institute in Ireland, this adds up to at least 11% of Ireland’s total electricity supply at present, a situation he described “as a serious energy systems problem.” As Deane outlined, meeting this demand is making Ireland’s current energy crisis worse and its target of halving greenhouse emissions by 2030 harder to reach. And things are only getting more challenging. A recent report from Eirgrid, Ireland’s state-owned grid operator, shows that data centers will consume almost 30% of Ireland’s annual electricity supply by 2029.
Although, as Deane pointed out, data centers are essential to modern life (the Zoom call I have with him wouldn’t be possible without them), a small country with little grid power to spare hosting so many of them puts the sustainability of Ireland’s entire power supply at risk. Deane summed up Ireland’s issue with data centers as being a mismatch in size. “Data centers are large power users, and our power system is small, so plugging more of them into a small grid will start to have an outsized impact,” he said. In stark comparison, Germany, the EU’s biggest data center market overall, will use less than 5% of its grid capacity to power data centers in the same period. As well as stoking fears that the industry’s growth will create blackouts and power shortages for Irish consumers this winter, data centers may also derail Ireland’s drive to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
For Phoebe Duvall, planning officer at An Taisce, a leading Irish environmental NGO, this is the data center industry’s core problem. “As we see it, Ireland is hosting a disproportionate amount of data centers, something which has enormous climate implications,” she said.
An Taisce, which as a prescribed planning body (an organization with legal supervisory duty somewhat unique to the country), must receive notice of plans or developments that might impact Ireland’s natural environment, has objected to several data center developments so far. Duvall said that the NGO’s core concern is that more than doubling the size of Ireland’s data center industry by 2030 is directly at odds with Ireland’s otherwise progressive climate action goals.
“Yes, they [data centers] are supporting renewables, but we cannot have all our renewables going towards new developments instead of decarbonizing our existing energy system,” she said.
Host In Ireland, a data center developer representative body, portrays the industry as a climate champion. It often highlights how data center owners make power purchase agreements with renewable energy developers. A press release from the group boasts that the growth of the Irish data center industry will “go hand-in-hand with the development of green electricity to meet power availability demands.” However, according to Deane, this is not the whole story. He said that unless data centers can somehow store renewable energy onsite or flexibly share computing demand globally (to get renewable energy 24/7), more data centers will result in more fossil fuel power plants. “They are not going to just turn off Facebook because it’s dark or it’s not windy outside,” he added.
As far as An Taisce sees it, this industry disconnect with real climate policy makes data center growth in Ireland reckless. The organization has lent its support to calls by politicians outside of Ireland’s center-right governing coalition, such as Social Democrat TD (elected representative) Jennifer Whitmore, for a moratorium on data center construction. Until their climate and energy impact is better understood and measures can be put in place to encourage sustainability, groups like An Taisce want to see data center construction paused. Singapore recently took a similar step due to land and energy use concerns.
With its new climate action plan stating an intent to “review” current policy on data center construction, Ireland’s traditionally data center-friendly government may yet take some steps in this direction. Recently published guidelines from Ireland’s utility regulator now require new data center grid connections to be “within the system stability and reliability needs of the electricity network,” a move that may discourage development. However, although the government’s belated recognition of the need for action on data centers is welcome, the industry itself also needs to do more. Data center developers have been quick to explain why they have come to Ireland in the first place, but, as Deane put it, “now they need to show us why they should stay.”
Robbie Galvin is a writer based in Ireland. Reporting on topics ranging from sustainability to edible seaweed, he has written for publications such as Hakai Magazine, Earth Island Journal, and Whetstone Magazine.