The Myth of “green” Data Centres

bad Apple Cloud

Apple are seeking planning permission for a 240MW data centre in Athenry, Co. Galway, which it says will create “up to 215 jobs”.

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Questions need to be asked about this data centre that is being hailed by the current government as a massive victory for the Irish economy and the environment, as Apple have announced that they intend to power this data centre with renewable energy.

What is a data centre?
This definition comes from PaloAlto Networks, a multinational dealing in digital technology:
“A data center is a facility that centralizes an organization’s IT operations and equipment, and where it stores, manages, and disseminates its data.”

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As I understand it, a data centre is like a massive warehouse containing a giant IT Department with mindboggling numbers of servers and storage devices, which allows us all to save stuff on the “cloud”.

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Are data centres green?
The word “cloud” makes us think of this light and fluffy white thing floating around up there and keeping out of everybody’s way. Actually, it is one of these data centres that will be used to store our data, and they are anything but light and fluffy. They are huge electricity guzzlers as they consist of tonnes of electric appliances that must remain on and working, 24 hours of each 365 days of every year; which in turn generate massive heat, which has to go somewhere.

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Apple have vaguely claimed that they will be running the data centre entirely on renewable energy. That is a nonsense as renewable energy can never provide the type of constant power that a massive data centre needs. These things cannot afford to “hibernate” when the wind is not blowing as the online cloud customers would go ballistic.

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Apple’s engineering consultants clearly are aware of the unreality of their iCloud being dependant on “renewable energy”, which is why there is a plan for a massive diesel generation plant in the planning application. This means they win both ways – they get all the subsidies and tax breaks from being a “renewable energy user”, but have a huge fossil fuel power station as backup to ensure the lights stay on.

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The resultant heat being generated by this data centre will be enormous. And will this heat be channelled into a domestic heating system or will it simply be blasted into the air (thereby increasing our CO2 levels)? The planning application suggests the latter.

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But don’t data centres provide jobs?
Well, these jobs are more apparent than real – a bit like an actual cloud on a warm day.
As David Hughes pointed out in his article “The Cloud Bytes Back”:

“To give an example Apple are seeking permission for a 240MW data centre in Athenry Co. Galway, which will create up to 215 jobs. The electricity consumption of this data centre will be the same as 420,000 Irish homes. This is ¼ of all Irish homes or every single house in Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire, Fingal and South County Dublin combined. Basically, the electricity needs of 1 Million people.
Electricity is a very expensive and capital-intensive form of energy. For every kWh coming out of a socket 2.7 kWh of Primary energy needs to be inputted at source. The transmission and distribution infrastructure or ‘grid’ is also massively expensive. This cost is ‘socialised’ and can account for 75% of a domestic electricity bill.
As a society we may accept such costs to provide a benefit to 420,000 homes but is it really justifiable to socialise the same demand again for only 215 jobs? And Apple is only but one data centre. Facebook and Google intend to build their own.
Facebook’s 108MW centre will only create 40 jobs and use the energy of 180,000 homes.
In fact in total 1,000MW of data centres are projected for Ireland so on a pro rata basis will use the same energy demand as every home in Ireland.”

In other words, just these two data centres will increase Ireland’s electricity consumption by 348 MW in exchange for which they will provide up to 255 jobs in Ireland.

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We thought Alex White was going mad when he said wind would power “five million homes” as we only have 4.5 million citizens! But it is now clear what he was talking about: The data centres will consume as much, if not more, than a million homes.

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The IWEA and Apple are new best friends, but even the IWEA acknowledges that a significant increase in electricity supply is required to meet the projected demand from new data centres with an additional 1,136 MW of electrical capacity already in line for integration over the next five years. This clearly understates the real need, but even that dodgy figure from IWEA represents an approximate 18 percent increase on Ireland’s current electricity demand.
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This huge increase in consumption will be subsidised by the customer, namely every Irish citizen. For example, if we hypothetically say that Apple invests in 960MW of wind and they get the employer-friendly terms of REFIT/ Gate 3 they will be generating electricity at a profit as the supply rate would simply be the grid rate for large energy users which can be as low as 8c/kWh and possibly even lower. There have been a number of queries as to whether Apple is getting a sweetheart deal on the price of electricity, but these questions have been met by silence.

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The result of Apple’s bargain buy? The Irish citizen / taxpayer / electricity customer ends up subsidising their wind farms, paying for the grid and deep connection costs of their wind farms and the huge added capacity on our national grid. And what do we get in return? Up to 215 jobs. Well, whoopee.

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This massive increase in our domestic consumption will push up the cost of electricity even further, which will result in:
 a further jump in the cost of living;
 increased fuel poverty;
 higher labour costs as people need more money to pay the bills;
 greater production and manufacturing costs;
 more employers closing up shop in order to relocate elsewhere where electricity is cheaper (as happened in Germany with devastating results)
 even less chance of Ireland satisfying its EU targets.

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The overall result will be the loss of jobs. Apple always go on about being one of the biggest employers in Ireland but when one sees the vast profits that they make (way back in 1989 the “Irish branch” of Apple admitted a profit of $270m on a turnover of $751m – can you imagine what the figures are now?). Apple essentially deals in virtual jobs when what Ireland desperately needs at the moment is internal investment allowing hard product to be locally manufactured and exported. The jobs that are being created for Apple, Google, Facebook and the like are about moving data, answering telephone calls (and even most of those jobs have been relocated to India), and issuing invoices in Ireland for jobs done elsewhere, given the benign corporation tax here. The ‘real’ jobs that do exist can be shifted to another country in an instant.

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If these companies actually employed the same proportion of employees in Ireland in comparison to their international workforce, so as to match the proportion of their Irish turnover compared to their overall annual turnover, they should be employing hundreds of thousands of Irish employees, as opposed to the few hundred that they do employ. The figures just do not match up.

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The scary thing (from a jobs perspective) is that data centres are already regarded as old technology. Germany and Holland are rolling out De-Centralised Servers for domestic heating and hot water.

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Manufacturing de-centralised servers in Ireland and installing them in buildings, especially domestic buildings, would go a long way to creating ‘real jobs’ in Ireland and is more green and sustainable than allowing all that energy to be lost in generation, transmission and lost to the atmosphere. The fibre optics that link them could also be used for broadband.

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The move towards smaller, more compact data centres is well under way – why does Apple want to build this giant in Ireland? Is it a stop-gap measure while it builds the future data centres in a number of other countries? Will it end up as a huge pile of rusting scrap in Athenry?

Questions need to be asked
If you would like to ask about about data centres, and just how much power they consume and at what price will they be purchasing that power, how many are going to be built in Ireland, and how will it affect our economy, our job market, our price of electricity, our environment, and our EU targets, why not ask these very questions as the conference “DataCentres Ireland 2015” which is being held at the RDS on 10th and 11th November. Registration is now open at http://www.datacentres-ireland.com/

About Neil van Dokkum

Neil van Dokkum (B. SocSc; LLB; LLM; PGC Con.Lit) Neil is a law lecturer and has been so since arriving in Ireland from South Africa in 2002. Prior to that Neil worked in a leading firm of solicitors from 1987-1992, before being admitted as an Advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa (a barrister) in 1992. He published three books in South Africa on employment law and unfair dismissal, as well as being published in numerous national and international peer-reviewed journals. Neil currently specialises in employment law, medical negligence law, family law and child protection law. He dabbles in EU law (procurement and energy). Neil retired from practice in 2002 to take up a full-time lecturing post. He has published three books since then, “Nursing Law for Irish Students (2005); “Evidence” (2007); and “Nursing Law for Students in Ireland” (2011). He is an accredited and practising mediator and is busy writing a book, with Dr Sinead Conneely, on Mediation in Ireland. His current interest is Ireland’s energy policy and its impact on the people and the environment. He is also researching the area of disability as a politico-economic construct. Neil is very happily married to Fiona, and they have two sons, Rory and Ian.
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2 Responses to The Myth of “green” Data Centres

  1. Since preserving the rural Irish landscape is accorded little merit by the Minister and his Civil Servants, the real question is, why only 5 million homes? The Greenlink and Celtic Interconnectors provide access to many more homes – the only limit is the capacity of the interconnector.

    A Minister with vision could envisage 15 or 20 million homes. Why not 30 million? All the homes in continental Europe. Cram down the setback and stuff the countryside with wind turbines everywhere possible. The ‘Energiewende’ in Germany failed due to lack of vision; Ireland won’t make that mistake. We will show the rest of Europe a real transition.

    A transition to becoming the car battery of Europe. Now that’s a noble aspiration. Punching way above our weight. Showing what we can do.

    Anybody have any ideas for recycling used car batteries, one wonders?

  2. Ha – nice one Nigel!

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