Green is the new gold as Ireland stands to profit from the Great Data Rush

21 Apr 2015

Two communities on Ireland’s west Atlantic coast are about to be hit with a data tsunami that includes most of Apple’s iTunes and App Store traffic, not to mention 150,000 8K video channels along with 20m 4G mobile calls.

Athenry in Galway and Killala in Mayo are two communities perched on Ireland’s wild Atlantic west coast that are in the eye of an eco-driven digital gold rush where climate and location will be king.

In the gold rushes of the 19th century, they say the only people who really profited were the guys who made the shovels and pickaxes.

In the digital-centric and environmentally-conscious 21st century, the gold is in the data and the pickaxe makers have been replaced by innovators who can get data from A to B, securely, cost-effectively and ideally through prodigious use of renewable energy.

From solar panels and alternative fuels, to batteries that will power homes and cars, and a smarter, cleaner planet, the world’s digital leaders from Apple’s Tim Cook to Tesla’s Elon Musk are razor-focused on reducing harm to the planet while simultaneously building multi-billion dollar businesses.

Ireland is home to a growing coterie of data centres belonging to players like Microsoft, Google, Digital Realty Trust, Vodafone, Amazon and TelecityGroup, which are increasingly relying on Ireland’s cool climate and prevailing westerly winds to cool their data centres.

But Ireland has competition. Detailed consent has been granted for phase one of Scotland’s largest green data centre development located in Fife. Plans are now in place for two cloud-hosting facilities at Queensway Park in Glenrothes, the first of which will cover an area of more than 90,000 sq ft and is hoped to be ready for occupation towards the end of 2016. Once completed, Queensway Park will be the largest co-location data centre campus in Scotland, with a development value approaching stg£100 million. 

A byte of the Apple

The Apple 2 Campus, which is currently being built in California, will run entirely on renewable energy. Eventually this will set the standard for business operations everywhere. Ireland, with the experiences it can gain from data centres and renewable energy, could create an enviable advantage for itself.

One company at the epicentre of this eco and digitally-driven data rush is Apple. In February, the company revealed plans to invest €1.7bn to build and operate two data centres in Europe that will be 100pc powered by renewable energy. One will be located in Athenry on Ireland’s west coast and the other in Denmark’s central Jutland.

Both data centres will power Apple’s online services, including the iTunes Store, the App Store, iMessage, Maps and Siri for customers across Europe.

The new €850m Athenry data centre will be the company’s largest data centre project in Europe, providing 300 jobs during its multiple phases. The two data centres, each measuring 166,000 square metres, are expected to begin operations in 2017 and include designs with additional benefits for their communities.

The news came just a week after it emerged that Apple is to build a US$848m, 130 megawatt solar farm in California that will produce enough energy to power its new spaceship headquarters and all of its retail stores in California, equal to 60,000 homes.

In what is the biggest leap into solar energy by any US tech giant, Apple is partnering with First Solar to build a 2,900-acre solar farm in Monterey in California. Under the 25-year power purchase agreement – the largest agreement in the industry to provide clean energy to a commercial end user – construction is to begin in mid-2015 and will be completed by the end of 2016.

“We are grateful for Apple’s continued success in Europe and proud that our investment supports communities across the continent,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, announcing the data centre project for Athenry.

“This significant new investment represents Apple’s biggest project in Europe to date. We’re thrilled to be expanding our operations, creating hundreds of local jobs and introducing some of our most advanced green building designs yet. Like all Apple data centres, the new facilities will run entirely on clean, renewable energy sources from day one.”

On wind and wave, we will prosper

Ambitious, well-backed projects like those of Apple will eventually bring with them similar projects, no doubt inspiring the Elon Musks of this world to consider Ireland’s wild, ruggest coastline with its abundance of wind and waves.

One such example is AquaComms, a provider of scalable subsea networks. This morning it emerged that the company has received the financial backing and planning approval to bring a US$300m subsea fibre optic network ashore at Killala in Mayo.

This afternoon the company confirmed that it will build a 5,400km high-speed data connection linking the financial and entertainment hub of New York with Kilalla, connecting New York with the rest of Europe in a fraction of milliseconds.

AquaComms will use the existing CeltixConnect cable system to work with America Europe Connect (AEConnect) to simultaneously carry over 200,000 4K video and 150,000 8K video channels along with 20m 4G mobile calls at the same time.

Software defined networking technologies will allow engineers anywhere on the planet to tweak these data streams using 130Gbps x 100Gbps fibre pairs.

Manufacturing of the fibre has already begun and the laying of the fibre optic cable will be completed by December 2015 with the first transmission of live data expected in the first quarter of 2016.

“AquaComms’ strategy is to build and operate a diversified, solution-based network, providing term and peak capacity product offerings, working in partnership with its contractors, equipment suppliers, back-haul network providers and customers to support the US’ and Europe’s expanding data requirements of today and for tomorrow, ultimately offering ‘infrastructure as a service,” explained Greg Varisco, COO of AquaComms.

“AEConnect is currently being constructed using state-of-the-art technology, with 100Gbps-coherent design for low latency, reliable delivery for even the most bandwidth-hungry applications and direct data centre to data centre connectivity across the Atlantic.”

The landing of the AquaComms/AEConnect project was achieved through engagement with the Irish Government, in particular the Taoiseach and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, which was a big factor.

Ireland would be advised to move fast on the two great fortunes of turning the west coast of the country into the conduit between which technology giant Apple and the city known as the Big Apple will thrive and profit in the digital age.

“We invited the developers to come ashore in Mayo and to use the ducting from Mayo to Galway to connect to Dublin and on to London,” explained Peter Hynes, chief executive of Mayo County Council.

“The support of many agencies and of Government has been crucial and our Enterprise and Investment Unit has worked tirelessly to assist AquaComms in bringing the project to this stage. We are very excited by the possibilities it creates for the future of the west.”

To consolidate such success, Ireland would be advised to promote its digital and green tech credentials – which are looking rather impeccable right now.

Renewable energy image via Shutterstock

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