Busting the Myth: Data Centres and Carbon Emissions
We’ve all seen the role data centres have played in our lives over the past few months. They have provided the infrastructure for our Zoom calls, Netflix binges and online shopping while we’ve been locked down due to COVID-19. With a renewed focus on this critical global infrastructure, we have decided to add some key metrics to our quarterly reports.
We have begun tracking data centre capacity growth alongside the carbon intensity of electricity and CO2 attributable to data centres. Using data from SEAI, IWEA, EPA and EirGrid, we have found that whilst the trend for data centre growth is upwards, their proportion of Ireland’s total emissions will level-off at approximately 2.2% through 2025. The numbers will continue to fall as a result of further decarbonising of the grid as part of the government’s Climate Action Plan. While these numbers are encouraging, ensuring data centre efficiency will still be critical as the greenest electricity is still electricity not consumed. As noted by the IEA, advances in the efficiency of data centre infrastructure, as well as a shift to virtualised servers and cloud computing, will contribute to this goal by delivering higher work output with fewer servers.
There are a few other key factors contributing to this trend. First, electricity is expected to continue the transition to renewable generation. Ireland has the potential to generate far more wind power than needed and has the capacity to power 5% of Europe’s electricity requirements based on its wind generation alone. This creates a virtually untapped resource of green energy within its borders and along its coastline. Because of this, Ireland is also on track to meet the decarbonisation of electricity target of 40% set out by the government by the end of 2020. The country will also require at least 3,500 MW of offshore wind generation capacity by 2030 in order to meet the 70% renewable electricity ambition Ireland has set out to achieve.
Second, any future growth of data centres will drive green energy development in order to meet power availability demands. Power availability defines the size of any data centre operation. Without a guarantee of power availability, the data centre business model would not work. Seventy-seven percent of the data centre market in Ireland is activity relating to a category called Hyperscalers - Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. Collectively, these companies are the largest purchasers of renewable energy on the planet, and in the case of Microsoft, have pledged to be carbon neutral by 2025 and negative by 2030. They are also innovating in how they can maximise power availability. Google, for example, recently announced a carbon-intelligent computing platform that shifts the timing of compute tasks to when low-carbon power sources, like wind and solar, are most plentiful.
Data centres already play a critical role in keeping our economy moving. They are a part of the largest Irish export industry, ICT, responsible for €86 billion in exported services per year. As the push to export green wind electricity grows, so does the opportunity to use that electricity to power a more valuable export asset in the form of data. The infrastructure to move data already exists, and as you see with other natural resources, the value add of a data service is greater than the wind resource alone. Ireland has a tremendous opportunity ahead of itself and with political changes underway, now is the time to have the discussion.
Founder & President Host In Ireland