Ireland reveals new regional data centre plan after Apple-Athenry debacle

7 Jun 2018

A vision of what could have been; what the Apple data centre in Athenry would have looked like. Image: Apple

Balanced regional development, less bureaucracy and aligned electricity goals define Irish Government’s new data centre policy. But is this enough for Ireland to hold on to Europe’s digital crown?

The loss of a flagship Apple data centre project for Athenry, while the sister site announced in Denmark at the same time in 2015 is fully operational, was a dark day in Ireland’s digital history.

The loss of the project – almost unheard of in the decades-old chronicle of stellar tech wins by the IDA – was a wake-up call for Government.

Today (7 June), Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys, TD, has issued a new policy statement outlining Ireland’s approach to securing future data centre projects.

‘While the number of people directly employed in data centres is relatively small, the fact is, there are over 100,000 employed in ICT companies here. The reality is, many of those companies need data centres to facilitate their activities and continued growth’

While data centres don’t generate huge amounts of jobs on their own, they are effectively the engine rooms of the digital economy, part of the reason why Dublin has attracted so many international tech headquarters, and the prestige for the west of Ireland would have been incalculable.

In essence, the €850m Apple Athenry data centre would have put the west on the world’s digital map and opened the door to potentially thousands of new jobs in other companies looking to the region.

A comedy of errors that descended into downright farce exposed the weaknesses in Ireland’s bureaucratic planning system. Numerous court dates were delayed by the constipated Irish legal system, which ultimately resulted in Apple pulling the plug. This was despite enormous local support for the project.

Time for joined-up thinking

Humphreys has revealed this new framework in an effort to restore Ireland’s reputation as the digital hub of Europe.

The framework ties in with the finalisation of the Renewable Electricity Policy and Development Framework, the amendment of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act to include data centres and measures to streamline judicial review of strategic infrastructure projects.

Put simply, it is an attempt at joined-up thinking, an effort to remove lamentable planning and legal bottlenecks, and a way to ensure that regions attracting data centres have the electricity to support such projects.

“The demand for data centres is there, and this policy statement is about having a coherent strategic plan in place to deal with that demand,” Humphreys said.

“This is a joined-up, cross-Government approach on their development in Ireland.

“We all know that data centres present challenges given that they’re very energy-intensive; however, they are also critically important to ensuring that Ireland continues to be a leader in the digital economy. This is about striking a balance between the challenges and opportunities.

“While the number of people directly employed in data centres is relatively small, the fact is, there are over 100,000 employed in ICT companies here. The reality is, many of those companies need data centres to facilitate their activities and continued growth.”

Crucially, the failure of State departments to operate in a joined-up way – sadly, a reality across a myriad of issues – can no longer be allowed to hold back the country’s economic future.

“We need to be strategic about this. If companies do want to set up data centres in Ireland, we need to be selective and target investments that deliver real economic benefits.

“For example, we know that Dublin is under the most pressure in terms of energy capacity. That’s why we need to look at putting data centres in regional locations which might be under less pressure,” Humphreys said.

Regional data centres cannot be avoided

The Government statement also highlights that IDA Ireland will increase its emphasis on promoting a range of regional options for data centre investment.

It said that the IDA has recently identified specific sites in regions throughout Ireland that are potentially suitable for accommodating the sustainable development of large-scale data centre projects in terms of proximity to necessary energy and other appropriate infrastructures.

“This is building on the work that IDA Ireland has already done and will continue to do to actively promote a range of regional options for data centre investment, while also having regard to the success of Dublin in attracting data centre investment to date and capacity for future growth,” the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation stated.

“The importance of data centres to Ireland – particularly given the country’s reputation as a leading location for digital economy companies – and the potential for development in regional locations is also recognised in Project Ireland 2040, which makes clear that the promotion of Ireland as a sustainable international destination for ICT infrastructure is a key national objective.”

Updated, 10.42am, 7 June 2018: This article was updated to clarify that the sister data centre site in Denmark was also announced in 2015.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years