In 2021, we learnt that the Irish grid is facing real and immediate problems of security of supply. Simply put, a lack of investment in grid infrastructure allied with a lack of reasonable forward planning has meant that, at peak times, there must be a real concern over its ability to meet growing demand.

Immediately, the finger was pointed at large energy users as somehow being responsible for the grid’s inability to cope. Amongst those large energy users, data centres were singled out by some as being the main cause of the problem. A raft of statistics were produced, comparing the energy usage of a data centre to the energy usage of decent-sized towns and claiming that, were all the data centres in planning to be built out, they might account for as much as 70% of Ireland’s energy consumption.

Data centre operators quickly found themselves in limbo as the grid operator put a hold on power supply connections to their planned infrastructure. The Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU) launched a consultation around three proposed directions that it could issue to the grid system operators in regard of connecting data centres: business as usual, a complete moratorium, or connections based on criteria such as location and availability of on-site power generation.

When the CRU issued its direction – option three, criteria-based connections – it became clear that it was to be treated as guidance. Soon after, the grid issued a practical moratorium on new data centre connections in the Dublin area and, again, the data centre operators find themselves in a position of uncertainty.

Yet the issue of security of supply has not been created by increased demand. It is the result of a shortfall in generation capacity and the inability of ageing transmission infrastructure to cope with 21st century demands. Data centre operators are viewed as bogeymen, but we are bogeymen who have invested €400m in grid infrastructure in the last five years.

Yes, Ireland’s position as a location of choice for data centre operators – welcomed by the Irish government in 2018 – means that these facilities are looking for significant quantities of grid power – but the statistics that have been brandished by the grid operators reflect inflated worst-case scenarios where investment in the grid and its transmission capabilities comes to a stop.

Data centre operators recognise the role they have to play in ensuring this doesn’t happen. Security of power supply is crucial for their viability – without it they literally have no business – so it is in their interests to be good grid citizens and they are investing accordingly. The CRU directive recognises that data centres can are well placed to support an over-stretched grid and help ensure all-important security of supply.

Echelon’s DUB20 site in Arklow, Co Wicklow, is outside Dublin on the east coast – in line with one of the grid’s own proposed recommendations from its public consultation of June 2021 – away from areas of constrained supply and close to a source of renewable energy (Arklow Bank Wind Farm).

Committed to sustainability and grid citizenship, Echelon struck a deal with SSE to jointly develop grid infrastructure on the DUB20 site, bringing more than 500MW of wind energy on-shore and into the grid, which is also powering the data centre infrastructure on the site. The site will also host a biogas facility and a green hydrogen production plant is being evaluated.

Echelon’s two data centre sites in Dublin – DUB10 at Clondalkin and DUB40 at Grange Castle – while obviously in an area where demand for power is high, particularly at peak times, both have planning permission for on-site energy centres. These will be gas-fired and capable of powering the data centre facilities when the grid is overburdened as well as dispatching power to the grid as necessary. They will increase the power-producing capacity of the national grid, they will increase security of supply, and they will be wholly funded by Echelon.

Beyond the specific measures being taken to make Echelon’s sites ‘grid supporters’ rather than ‘grid de-stabilisers’, data centres also have a role to play in enabling the transition from traditional methods of generating energy to meeting the nation’s needs renewably with wind and solar power.

It’s widely acknowledged that there is >30GW of wind energy available off the west coast of Ireland – which compares extremely favourably with the 5GW that Ireland as a whole consumes every year. The problem is making the investment case for wind energy – no-one wants to put money behind a large-scale scheme unless they are certain that there is a constant demand for it – and that they are not going to see their investment lying idle during the off-peak.

Data centre demand is constant – 24 hours of every day – and provides a customer for wind energy even when grid demand is low. Having that demand makes wind power attractive to investors and developers, which in tuns aids the country on its way to a target of 100% renewable energy in the grid by 20??

Data centres are essential infrastructure – now, post-pandemic, more than ever. If we are to continue to benefit from low-cost, reliable, and time-saving technology such as Zoom and Teams, if we are to enjoy the speed of 5G, if we are to stream on-demand, and if we are to look forward to the future of AI and the IoT, then increasing data centre capacity is a given.

Bringing these key facilities to Ireland – along with the associated direct and indirect investment and job creation – is not only good for the economy of Ireland Inc., it is also, in the long run, good for the country’s infrastructure and therefore for the Irish population as a whole.

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