Lawmakers clash over Irish data center industry growth amid environmental concerns

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Rapid growth in the Irish data center industry has sparked a fierce debate over the country’s ability to meet long-term net zero emissions goals. 

According to the Irish Times, Green Party minister for the environment, Eamon Ryan, and Fine Gael minister for enterprise Simon Coveney have clashed at a Cabinet committee meeting, with Ryan calling for any future data centers that don't have their own carbon-neutral sources of energy to be blocked.

Coveney, however, strongly opposed this, stating that this wasn't an agreed government policy.

Meanwhile, Labour’s climate spokesperson, senator Rebecca Moynihan joined the fray, suggesting that the proliferation of data centers in Ireland threatens the country’s ability to meet climate emission targets.

"Following reports of a row between Eamon Ryan and Simon Coveney over the development of new data centers, it’s clear that Fine Gael have yet to catch up on the climate crisis,” Moynihan said.

“The dominance of [(Industrial Development Agency] IDA policy must not outweigh government policy, especially when it comes to environmental sustainability.”

Moynihan called for a halt to new data center development plans until lawmakers can establish a “full understanding of the impact they are having on our environment and infrastructure”.

“We’ve been calling for a moratorium on new data centers until we have a full understanding of their impact,” she said.

Moynihan asked for an expert working group to be created to try and make sure that future development aligns with the country's climate goals, which calls for carbon emissions to be cut in half by 2030.

Irish data center industry growth has sparked previous concerns

The proliferation of data centers in the country, driven by the presence of so many large tech firms, has been cause for concern for some time.

Figures from Ireland's Central Statistics Office (CSO) revealed that electricity consumption by data centers rose by a third between 2021 and 2022, and by 400% from 2015.

This, it said, meant that the proportion of metered electricity consumed by data centers rose from 5% of the national total in 2015 to 18% in 2022.

"The increase in consumption was driven by a combination of existing data centers using more electricity and new data centers being added to the grid," said Niamh Shanahan, statistician in the CSO's environment and climate division.

"Large energy users with very high consumption accounted for 27% of total metered consumption in 2022."

Nearly two-thirds (62%) of the country’s expected increase in electricity demand between 2021 and 2025 is set to come from extra-large energy users such as data centers, Moynihan said, which is 'completely unsustainable'.

New rules introduced in 2021 require permission for new data centers to be granted only to those with a suitable location, the ability to use back-up generators, and the ability to reduce power consumption when requested.

Otherwise there was a risk that the situation could lead to load shedding and rolling blackouts, the energy regulator warned at the time,

"We need to ensure that the development of data centers in Ireland is sustainable and that it does not come at the expense of our environment," Moynihan said. "We cannot afford to wait any longer."

Emma Woollacott

Emma Woollacott is a freelance journalist writing for publications including the BBC, Private Eye, Forbes, Raconteur and specialist technology titles.