Irish Times view on slowing data center growth: a system under pressure

Measures to curb the growth of data centers are a stark illustration of their undeniable role in increasing the strain on the national power grid. The sector includes tech giants Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, which have large Irish operations and have an increasing need to store and process data for online business. Following a relentless expansion, there are legitimate concerns that further uncontrolled growth could expose Ireland to the threat of power outages, an unacceptable risk to both citizens and the economy at large.

Now, regulators have decided that the ability of new data centers to deploy their own backup power should be a major factor in deciding whether to access the grid. Location also needs to be assessed meaning new centers are unlikely in areas such as Dublin where network is limited.

The Commission for Regulation of Utilities has imposed these conditions on EirGrid, which operates the network, under pressure from data center administrators. The regime specifically calls for on-site dispatchable generation and/or storage. Dispatchable power can be deployed on request. It includes gas-fired generation that can be switched on at any time and excludes wind power, available only when the wind is blowing and therefore less reliable in an emergency. Cloud Infrastructure Ireland (CII), the industry’s leading advocacy group, opposed the ability to send backup via renewable energy sources. It also opposed location restrictions, which, on the face of it, will curtail the expansion of existing centers.

That these rules come weeks after separate but related measures to extend coal and coal production to reduce supply risks on the grid is telling. Such measures undermine binding climate targets. But they reflect the inevitable fact that the system is struggling to keep up with rising demand, regardless of the requirements of future data centers. Ireland urgently needs more standby gas generation, cleaner than coal or oil, just as it needs more renewable energy. As an alternative to jeopardizing inventories, data centers will have to play their part.

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