Can data centres be ‘part of the solution’ to Ireland’s energy crisis?

1 Oct 2021

Norman Crowley, CEO of Cool Planet Group. Image: Crowley Carbon website

Cool Planet CEO Norman Crowley suggests that data centres can be paid to reduce consumption by using generators and batteries at peak times.

As the Government debates halting construction of data centres to relieve pressure on the grid, an Irish entrepreneur and CEO said that data centres could be “part of the solution” to the energy crisis in Ireland.

Norman Crowley of the Cool Planet Group based in Co Wicklow said that data centres can help reduce demand on the grid by switching to generators and battery storage during peak times.

“The country can use 5,000MW of energy on a peak day. Data centres have 1,500MW of unused energy in back-up generators. This is more than enough to take pressure off the grid on peak days if they switch to them,” he said.

Ireland is one of Europe’s data centre hubs. Earlier this week, Ireland’s grid operator EirGrid predicted that data centres could account for a quarter of the country’s electricity usage by 2030, which will result in “electricity supply challenges”.

This figure is more than the 11pc such facilities currently use, but less than the 70pc predicted by an academic from Maynooth University.

To incentivise data centres to reduce demand, Crowley suggested they could be paid through the Demand Side Unit (DSU) scheme. The DSU was set up to help provide EirGrid with system capacity at times when Ireland’s energy demand outstrips supply.

“We’re all so used to paying for electricity but getting paid not to use electricity is very new to most people,” Crowley said.

Pausing construction ‘not the answer’

Through the scheme, energy-heavy users such as data centres, factories and commercial buildings can agree to reduce consumption during peak times by relying on on-site generators and battery storage, or by turning off some machines.

“Pausing the construction of data centres is not the answer,” Crowley added. “Soon, we’re all going to be plugging in our electric cars overnight, which will add more pressure on the grid. The government needs to prepare for this by adding more renewables.”

Renewables accounted for 43pc of Ireland’s electricity consumption last year, with wind accounting for 38pc alone. The largest source in the country was gas, at just under 50pc.

Other countries such as Singapore and the Netherlands have stopped issuing building permits to data centres because of the pressure they put on national grids.

Similar concerns have been raised by political parties in Ireland on the role data centres should take in the country’s economy. The Social Democrats called for a temporary moratorium on new data centre construction earlier this week.

The Cool Planet Group includes electric car manufacturer Ava, non-profit Cool Planet Experience and solar power business Crowley Solar. In August, the group acquired Northern Ireland’s PowerHouse Generation in a deal that is set to boost the group’s revenue by €10m in 2022.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic