Can Ireland be a leader in data centre sustainability?

18 Mar 2021795 Views

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Vertiv Ireland’s Russ Barker discusses Ireland’s potential to be a world leader when it comes to data centre sustainability.

Ireland is one of the world’s most desirable locations for data centres. Last year, TikTok joined tech giants such as Google, AWS and Microsoft that have selected the country as a data hub.

However, while data centres provide critical infrastructure for our internet-reliant society, they also consume high volumes of energy, an issue that Ireland is working hard to address.

The data centre industry accounts for approximately 1pc of global energy consumption. But there is already a shift towards sustainability from the industry and 2021 is likely to spark more innovation in this space.

The good news is that Ireland is uniquely positioned to set new standards for sustainability due to its geographical location, Governmental priorities and green initiatives from the tech giants based here.

Data centre operators face scrutiny

The pandemic has driven awareness of the critical role of data centres in society, giving them a status akin to public utilities. This is because seamless connectivity outside of office hubs is now the expectation as working and schooling from home continue.

But for the data centre industry, this recognition also brings responsibility, especially when it comes to environmental impact.

According to a report by grid operator EirGrid, data centres will put greater demands on electricity supply in Ireland and could account for 29pc of electricity demand in Ireland by 2028.

To put this into context, the report states that data centres often require the “same amount of energy as a large town”. While they power our connected society, it is important that data centre operators focus on reducing their carbon footprint. And Ireland has the opportunity to lead sustainability excellence in the industry.

Government priorities

The Irish Government has put a huge focus on sustainability with its efforts to create a clear framework for decarbonisation.

This sets the tone for businesses based in the country, with a key focus on public and private sector collaboration to develop Ireland’s renewable electricity market.

The Government has pledged that 70pc of the country’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2030.

There is also a target for 15pc of Ireland’s renewable electricity demand to come from corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs) by 2030. Under this scheme, businesses with high-energy consumption agree to buy electricity from a renewable provider for a set number of years.

This mandate has already spurred action in the Irish data centre sector. For example, Microsoft partnered with SSE Airtricity to install solar panels on the roofs of schools throughout the country. This investment into renewables is part of a PPA designed to offset the power consumption by Microsoft data centres.

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The panels are linked to Microsoft software that analyses real-time data on energy generated, providing insights that will help Microsoft and other corporations to achieve sustainability goals.

The Big Tech move to carbon zero

It is not just the Government that is focused on sustainability. The tech giants operating data centres in Ireland are also demonstrating a commitment to clean power. For example, Microsoft claims it will be carbon negative by 2030 and Amazon has committed to being net zero carbon by 2040.

The combined focus of these global leaders means that Ireland is home to some of the best innovation when it comes to sustainable data centres.

For example, Google and Microsoft use outside air for cooling to reduce power usage. Google also builds super-efficient servers and uses machine learning to understand how to minimise power consumption, sharing this performance data with the industry.

Similarly, Microsoft is working to reduce data centres energy consumption by 50pc through reductions in artificial cooling, lighting and electricity transformers.

Geographical advantage

Ireland’s position on the edge of the Atlantic means that businesses have a unique opportunity to build wind power into their sustainability plans.

Ireland was recently recognised by the US-based Earth Policy Institute as being fourth in the world for wind energy leadership, ahead of the US, UK and China. And wind energy has been a focus area when it comes to sustainability in the data centre.

We have seen a number of partnerships between data centre operators and power companies. For example, SSE Renewables and Irish-owned Echelon have agreed to develop a 520MW offshore windfarm and meet the power needs of Echelon’s data centres.

Both Amazon and Facebook have also set out deals with windfarms in Ireland, with Amazon recently announcing a new 115-MW windfarm project in Ardderroo, Co Galway, which will begin operating in 2022.

While these agreements will boost the goal of developing more sustainable data centres, they also deliver wider benefit for Ireland’s decarbonisation goals.

For example, Amazon’s windfarm projects are projected to add 229MW of renewable energy to the Irish grid each year. This could reduce carbon emissions by 366,000 tonnes of CO2 each year and produce enough renewable energy to power 185,000 Irish homes per annum.

It is this public-private opportunity to invest in renewable wind power that gives Ireland an opportunity to set new standards for sustainability – both for the data centre industry and the country as a whole.

By Russ Barker

Russ Barker is product and service sales director for Ireland at IT infrastructure company Vertiv.