Wednesday, 10 March 2021
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
40. To ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he will review State policy relating to the building of data centres in Ireland and specifically the impact on energy consumption; if this policy is compatible with national climate-related targets; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13279/21]
There is growing alarm at the spread of data centres, what they are doing to our hopes of reaching the Paris Agreement targets, as well as our climate goals, and whether an economic policy based on the unlimited growth of data centres is compatible with any chance of tackling a climate catastrophe. I am not assured by what is being said about them using sustainable energy. Based on what we see, they will swallow increased amounts of renewable energy. Will the Minister comment on this?
Government policy relating to data centres is primarily a matter for the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and any review would be a matter for him. The Government statement on the role of data centres in Ireland's enterprise strategy of 2018 recognises that a plan-led approach is needed to develop a range of measures to promote regional options for data centre investment, minimising the need for additional electricity grid infrastructure.
Data centre-related electricity demand in Ireland continues to grow. EirGrid, in its Generation Capacity Statement 2020-2029, projects that demand from data centres could account for 27% of all demand by 2029, up from 11% in 2020. Significant increases in volumes of generation capacity, including from renewable energy sources, will be required to meet data centre demand and deliver on Ireland’s climate objectives. Under the Climate Action Plan 2019, Ireland has adopted a target of at least 70% renewable electricity production by 2030. This will contribute to meeting the Government target of reducing Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by 2030 and meeting the long-term target of climate neutrality by 2050. The plan sets out a number of actions to ensure that data centres are accommodated in a sustainable manner, including implementing flexible demand and other innovative solutions for data centres. This has been implemented by EirGrid for new data centres seeking to connect in Dublin.
EirGrid has this week launched a public consultation on "Shaping our Electricity Future". The aim is to make the electricity grid stronger and more flexible so it can carry significantly more renewable generation as well as meet increasing demand from high-volume energy users such as data centres.
First, people should be aware that there is an astonishing growth in the number of data centres in the State. There are currently approximately 54, mainly based around Dublin. Another ten are under construction and planning permission has been granted for another 31. Although the argument the Government makes is that they will have their own renewable energy, that means that by 2030 half of the total renewable energy produced in this country will be gobbled up by data centres. In anybody's book, that does not make ecological or environmental sense and is not sustainable.
There is also the issue of water. We cannot regenerate water, but these data centres use a vast quantity of it. The question of water as a public resource has been at the heart of politics in this country. The Minister should, in the first instance, begin to examine the planning legislation, which allows data centres a special place as part of strategic infrastructure and fast-tracks planning permission for them. This is getting out of control.
The Deputy is correct that we must ensure our planning matches other objectives, including our decarbonisation objectives. Included in that is the planning of the grid system because that is probably the biggest constraint. It is one thing if something has planning permission, but whether it can get a grid connection and has good access to the grid is probably the main constraint. That is why EirGrid's consultation is key. Every sector of the economy, such as the transport, agriculture and industrial sectors, including data centres, must fit in with our new climate action plan. To my mind, they can.
We always have to think about where we are going next if it is 70% by 2030. We have agreed this. We all have collectively said that we think offshore wind has the potential for us to go even further, such as an additional 30 GW. That is the scale. It is almost nine times what we are using at present in terms of scale. There will be opportunities in this country whereby, if we locate them correctly and have the grid correctly connected to them, we will be able to run data centres efficiently with low carbon, and possibly look at other matters. We are starting to look at Tallaght, for example, and how we use that data centre. The Deputy is correct that we must consider the water use as well. We must also look at the heat and, perhaps, the potential use of heat from data centres for local district heating and other purposes. That overall planning is critical. The Deputy is correct that it must be centre stage.
I do not believe it is sustainable, or that it is possible to make it sustainable. If we take the climate crisis seriously, we will not go down this road. It is not in our interest to gobble up renewable energy and water on this scale. Ireland bends over backwards to facilitate foreign direct investment. That is fine; that is a different argument for a different day. This is also a facilitation. No other country in the world will have this level of data centres and facilitation of them, including fast-track planning, strategic development and so forth. Ireland will stand alone in that regard because it is facilitating Amazon, Facebook and all the famous, big, high-tech companies. They are based here already and there is a proliferation of data centres to facilitate them. It is an unsustainable and dangerous road for us to take.
I ask again if the Minister, the Government and the Cabinet will consider removing data centres from strategic development infrastructure so that at least they cannot be fast tracked thorough planning.
The strategic planning process will have to take into account EirGrid's analysis to show where is the best place, what is the number and what is the limit. The Deputy is right that we also must look at water use. This has to come from the land use plan the Government is initiating, which is also key to meeting our climate and biodiversity targets. Yes, the planning process has to take into account the low-carbon efficiency of the energy system and the ability to deliver water and other resources before any commitments are made. We cannot allow industrial policy go ahead of sustainability policy. It has to fit within it, like every other sector. I absolutely commit to putting that approach in the right order.