EirGrid proposes change in how data centre locations are chosen

8 Mar 2021

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EirGrid has suggested weighing in on the location of data centres and investing in new technology to redevelop Ireland’s electricity grid.

The Climate Action Plan is aiming for 70pc of Ireland’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. But in October 2020, the Irish Academy of Engineering warned that this target would not be met without significant investment into the national electricity grid.

Today (8 March) EirGrid and Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications Eamon Ryan, TD, launched a nationwide consultation on plans to help meet this target.

EirGrid, which operates the national electricity grid, is seeking feedback from the public on its report, Shaping Our Electricity Future, which outlines four approaches that will enable the grid to meet the renewable energy targets.

Ryan said the report and consultation will “go a long way towards Ireland’s goal” of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Climate change is one of the starkest challenges we face and Ireland is currently lagging far behind on our emissions targets,” he said.

“In the coming decades we will be electrifying large parts of our economy, including our heating and transport systems, so building a grid that can handle a high level of renewables will be critical to our success.”

Mark Foley, EirGrid’s CEO, added that the grid requires “unprecedented change” in the next 10 years.

“This transition to clean electricity will affect everyone in Ireland and will unquestionably be difficult, however the benefits will be truly transformative at both a societal and an economic level,” he said. “We want to collaborate with the public and all stakeholders.”

Over the next 14 weeks, EirGrid will hold a series of workshops, meetings and other gatherings around the Republic of Ireland to inform people and gather feedback that will directly influence the final plan.

In its report, EirGrid has outlined four approaches, with costs ranging from €500m to €2bn. The final plan is expected to include some elements from all four approaches.

Changing where data centres are located

EirGrid’s demand-led approach focuses on high-energy users, such as data centres, and their demand on the electricity grid.

Its report forecasts that data centres will use 27pc of all electricity on the grid as 2030 approaches, and currently the electricity grid operator has no say on the location of these centres.

“Most existing and proposed high-demand users are choosing to locate on the east coast. This is placing pressure on the local demand for electricity, and on existing grid infrastructure in this area,” the report said.

“In contrast, most developers of new renewable electricity want to locate in remote areas of the country, where the grid is weaker. With this draft approach, changes to Government policy would see new high-demand users locate closer to sources of clean power.”

To make the most of existing grid infrastructure, EirGrid suggests high-energy users should be located near major towns and cities in the west and south of the country.

Putting more windfarms on the east coast

EirGrid also has no say in where new energy suppliers locate their energy sources. According to the report, it must connect new electricity generators to the grid wherever they request.

“This applies even where the grid is weak or the local demand for electricity is low. Given that many developers plan to build new sources of clean electricity in remote locations, this creates a need for significant additions to the grid,” the report said.

Under EirGrid’s generation-led approach, more windfarms should be located near more densely populated areas of the country, meaning “the vast majority of new clean electricity that Ireland needs would come from offshore windfarms on the east coast”.

Both proposals of weighing in on the location of clean energy sources and high-energy users would require changes to Government policy.

Investing in new technology

Rather than put energy generation near areas of demand or vice versa, EirGrid’s technology-led approach examines how the power itself could be moved across the grid.

It suggests using high-capacity underground direct-current (DC) cables that are typically used in long-distance connections between separate grids. In order to integrate them into an existing grid structure that uses lines carrying alternating current, expensive converter stations are needed at both ends of each cable.

To deal with this challenge, EirGrid suggests using DC cables as isolated, one-way connections between renewable generation and urban centres.

EirGrid’s report estimates this approach would lead to more than 46 projects costing approximately €1.5bn to upgrade and add to the grid.

Maintaining the current system

EirGrid also outlined Ireland’s current policy as a potential approach, in which the company continues to connect new sources of renewable electricity as requested by developers in any location.

However, the operator said that while developers will likely be able to build enough generation to meet the demands of the 2030 target, “it will not be possible to expand the grid in time for Ireland to use all of this power”.

EirGrid estimates that developer-led locations will need more than 77 projects to add to or upgrade the grid at a cost of €1.9bn. “For reasons of safety and security of supply, there are practical limits to the number of major projects we can work on at the same time,” the report said.

“We forecast that the necessary projects would not be completed for many years after 2030. In the meantime, due to a lack of capacity on the grid, there would be excess power produced that can neither be exported nor used.

People can find out more about EirGrid’s public consultation here.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic