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Can Ireland's grid green satisfy Facebook and Apple?

Giants drive what consumers can't

When Facebook in January became the latest big-tech name to join Ireland’s roll call of data centre operators, its chief broke out the green flag – renewables.

At the announcement in County Meath, company chief executive Mark Zuckerberg boasted the planned new facility would be “one of the most advanced and energy efficient data centres in the world… and will be powered by 100 per cent renewable energy”.

There are, however, some concerns about Ireland’s renewables credentials.

Although its climate and topography make Ireland a natural fit for renewable energy sources such as wind and waves, the country itself remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels for its energy.

Under the European Renewable Energy Directive (2009), Ireland has a target of 16 per cent renewable energy in final consumption by 2020.

In 2014, the share was just over half that figure, at 8.6 per cent. Contribution from renewable energy to gross electrical consumption in 2014 was 22.7 per cent, set against a target of 40 per cent by 2020.

According to a report (PDF) by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), more than 40,000 homes and 550 businesses use some form of renewable energy for heat and around 190 wind farms have been connected since 2003, equating to 2,375 MW of renewable electricity capacity. It calculates that if the country meets its 2020 target, renewable energy will displace £620m (€750m) of imported energy every year.

But Ireland needs to do more to meet its renewable energy targets.

The SEAI report states: “To meet the national 2020 goal, a range of existing and new actions – and a scaling up of action across all sectors – will be required.”

According to one industry estimate, if Ireland fails to meet the target, the country could end up paying between £161m (€195m) and £297m (€360m) in fines.

In his opening statement to the planning appeal for a planned €850m Apple data centre in Athenry, Robert Sharpe, senior director of global data centre services at Apple, said his company had covered the electricity used by every one of its existing data centres with 100 per cent renewable energy since 2013.

The Athenry site would be no different.

But at the same hearing, a representative for a residents group claimed Apple’s planned data centre could require up to eight per cent of the national electricity capacity - more than is used in Dublin on a daily basis - making it the largest private user of electricity in the country.

Apple’s calculations are the data centre will equate to 0.17 per cent of Ireland’s national electrical power when it comes online in 2017. If the data centre achieves full capacity in 10-15 years time, the maximum power requirement could be up to 240MW, representing around 2.5 per cent of the country’s national electrical power.

However, projections by EirGrid - Ireland's state-owned electric power transmission operator - show a generation surplus of more than 800MW by 2024, which is more than sufficient to cover the demand from the Athenry data centre, ensuring there would be no real impact on the capacity of the National Grid.

While that could be true, if Apple were to achieve its stated goal of having that consumption of 240MW fulfilled by renewable energy, it would represent a very large chunk of the country’s renewable production when you consider Ireland’s target of reaching 40 per cent of electricity consumption from renewables by 2020.

Irrespective of what is likely to happen a few years into the future, what are the consequences for supply and capacity in the shorter term? All electricity generated on or imported onto the island of Ireland is sold into the Single Electricity Market (SEM) and bought from there.

Initially, Apple plans to buy renewable energy from the grid but has contracted with an indigenous energy supplier to place as much renewable energy in to SEM as the company uses in the data centre. Looking to the longer term, Apple has also invested £827,180 (€1m) into a fund to help developers test ocean energy prototypes in the Galway Bay Ocean Energy Trust Site.

Given their heavy power consumption, could the construction of data centres committed to using renewable energy sources therefore act as a spur to accelerate Ireland’s usage of renewable energy?

Karl Richardson, head of communications and public affairs at the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER), says the increase in demand for renewables generated by data centres “can only be good in terms of pushing demand towards renewables.”

This is particularly the case when most domestic users are far less preoccupied with whether the energy they are using is renewable than what it costs.

At the very least, with their commitment to using 100 per cent renewables, data centres will provide proactive demand for renewable energy compared to the apathy of most domestic users. ®


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