Green shoots of recovery require greener data centres

Business, Environment, Ireland, Partner Content | Thu 2 Dec | Author – Business & Finance
Chris Collins
Pictured: Chris Collins, Country President for Ireland, Schneider Electric

Digital services are essential to the demands of a modern knowledge economy, but sustainable provision of data centre infrastructure is even more important

Few would contest the notion that future economies are being built today on digital foundations. Or that data centres and the services they provide are therefore absolutely for success. From the connected nature of almost everything with the Internet of Things (IoT), through increasing automation and digitisation of services and government, a competitive innovative and successful economy must have the ability to store, process and retrieve large amounts of data, and to have visibility and control over the core infrastructure needed to provide those services. 

Having focused on information technology as a core industry for many decades now, Ireland is a long-established operations centre for many of the world’s leading software developers and service providers. The long-term presence of such as Microsoft, Apple and Oracle have foreshadowed a natural evolution to the presence of the current generation of “Internet Giants” such as Facebook, Amazon and Google. 

Ireland now enjoys a highly developed technology industry that employs some 140,000 people, contributing around €53 billion to the economy each year. Data centre construction investment in Ireland totalled €7 billion in the decade between 2010 and 2020. The importance of the sector was further highlighted by an ESRI report that found it accounted for more than a quarter (26%) of exports during the pandemic, or some €117 billion of the total €448 billion of Irish goods and services.

As with the rest of the developed world, however, the need to operate society—including modern knowledge-economy businesses—in a sustainable manner is bringing attention to bear on the activities of digital-service providers. 

During the last decade, digital transformation and connectivity requirements have grown at an unprecedented rate, placing great demands on the data centres, networks and energy grids that power the digital domain. Various analyses suggest that globally, data centres represent between 1 – 2% of all electricity consumption. The Irish Times reports that today there are 70 operational data centres in the country, using an estimated 900 megawatts (MW) of power. 

Consequently, sustainability has fast risen to the top of the business agenda. An article in the Harvard Business Review has highlighted that 99% of large company CEOs agree that “sustainability issues are important to the future success of their businesses.” From technology vendors to Internet Giants, sustainability has also become a key topic within the data centre sector.

Ireland recognises the need to decarbonise its economy and make that digital future more sustainable. As part of a greener future, Ireland has committed to obtaining 70 % of its power from RES (renewable energy sources) by 2030, a promise that will require significant development of capability, both in terms of core generation and integration. But the country has already taken significant strides, having exceeded its 2020 target of 40% RES by some 7.5%. 

Essential infrastructure like data centres must be built and operated in a way that supports Ireland’s sustainability, economic and employment ambitions. This is already recognised by the data centre sector which is already advanced in its own carbon mitigation strategies. For example, Amazon have made very public commitments to sustainability. In 2019, the company co-founded The Climate Pledge—a commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions across its business by 2040, 10 years ahead of Paris Agreement targets. In Ireland, AWS funded a 23.2MW wind farm in Cork, which will support its €350 million facility in Drogheda.

Clearly the data centre sector could go further by participating in renewably-powered microgrid schemes, and by utilising its energy storage capacity to make Ireland’s grid more resilient to issues of intermittency and variability – a major challenge to the use of RES to power the utility. In this way, data centres could not only put themselves at the heart of Ireland’s digital economy, but also play a pivotal role in ensuring abundant, green energy supplies that befit the domestic and industrial requirements of the Emerald Isle.