Examining the path to achieving 2030 climate action goals and the interconnected relationship between data, electricity and climate objectives
There has been much conversation in the last six months about Ireland’s power grids, decarbonisation, and the role data centres play in our society. Emotions have run high in these discussions. Given the importance of meeting Ireland’s sectoral emissions ceilings and achieving electricity targets by 2030, it is easy to understand why. Any industry not aligning to these objectives is disconnected from the global and national sentiment on these important issues.
Missing from these conversations, however, has been the science and facts behind what is required to decarbonise Irish society. In the last two months a series of plans and recommendations have been released that will provide the data centre industry - and Irish society as a whole - with a path forward towards achieving our 2030 climate action goals.
EirGrid’s “Shaping Our Electrical Future”
With this information in hand, Host in Ireland invited industry leaders to participate in our “Empowering Change - The Challenges and Opportunities for Ireland's Decarbonised Electrical Grid” webinar on December 1. The discussion was moderated by Garry Connolly with guests Mark Foley, CEO of Eirgrid; Noel Cuniffe, CEO Wind Energy Ireland; and Brian Ó Gallachóir, Professor of Energy Engineering, University College Cork & Director of SFI MaREI Centre. The conversation focused on the interconnected relationship between data, electricity and climate objectives. We also explored how Ireland can leverage its experience as a centre of data excellence, become a world leader in decarbonising data and meet 2030 climate targets.
There were a few key takeaways from this discussion. First, as we are challenged to meet some very aggressive goals on carbon emissions (51% reduction by 2030), Ireland has a track record to fall back on. Brian shared with us total greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland have reduced by 18% over a 15 year period prior to 2020. This was achieved despite unprecedented growth in agriculture, housing, transportation and electricity during that same time period. Electricity was the standout performer with a 46% reduction in emissions while seeing a 12% increase in demand.
In 2020, Ireland also achieved 43% of its energy generation from renewables, with nearly 36% of that coming from wind. This success came through collaboration between government, wind farm developers, private and public sector capital and others working together towards a common policy objective. As Noel shared with us, this put Ireland in a leadership position for onshore wind and is a great base to build a strong offshore opportunity as well. We will continue to reap the benefit of that over the next decade with an abundance of this natural resource in the form of renewable energy.
However, success in the next 10 years is going to be much more challenging than the last 10 years. Electricity demand is going to increase 30-50%. Part of this will come from the digital economy that is critical to Ireland’s economic future. It’s also going to come with the electrification of more industries - transport, home heating, etc. Brian highlighted that there is great societal benefit if we can reduce residential solid fuel burning, we can reduce the 1300 deaths a year associated with air pollution. If we can reduce the air pollution associated with car emissions, we can increase the well-being and enjoyment of city life.
The key priority through this transition will be ensuring the security of continuous electricity supply and ensuring emissions don't breach the carbon budgets. In part, that will mean expanding our renewable resources to include solar and hydrogen - and later in the decade the potential of green hydrogen - to meet Irish demand on the grid as well as have the ability to export to other countries via the current and planned inter country grid interconnects. Mark also advised that it will also mean in the short term, the need for a transitory backstop of fuel supply for large energy consumers, like data centres, but doing so in a way that ensures the lowest carbon form of gas in order to get fossil fuels off the grid.
No one is under the illusion this will be an easy task with a foregone conclusion. As our panellists said at the end of the webinar, the worst thing we could still be talking about in five years is the failure to deliver on these objectives. This won’t come from the government or semi-state organisation or an individual sector or companies or independent citizens alone. It’s going to require a collective effort from everyone to ensure we are successful.
The opportunity and risks have been identified; the plans have been presented. Now it's about embracing science as our guide, deploying the best technologies and aligning human behaviour to accept, embrace and execute. When all is said and done, by 2030, we need more done than said than ever before.
Founder - Host In Ireland