Farmers, as landowners, consumers and citizens will be affected more than others by the transformation already under way in Ireland’s electricity system.
The Government is committed to ambitious targets for renewable electricity and to policies which will see a sharp increase in overall electricity demand.
The penetration of renewables into the supply chain has already risen to high levels in Ireland and will rise much further if the targets are met. This means more wind and solar farms and new transmission lines.
Wind turbines and electricity pylons are unpopular and are opposed locally in many parts of rural Ireland.
Wind turbines are unsightly too and there are concerns about loss of birdlife, but nobody has figured out how to locate windmills below ground
The very feasibility of the Government’s targets is in question should this opposition prevail – it may not be possible to decarbonise the electricity system unless the physical infrastructure can be rolled out.
The challenge is exacerbated by the likelihood that overall electricity demand is expected to rise. There are sources of extra demand that should be welcomed – electric cars will cut emissions if the electricity system moves away from fossil fuels – but overall demand would not rise at all in the absence of what looks like a policy flaw.
At present, the power demand from data centres adds up to about 1,000 megawatts per annum. This level of demand is approaching the total requirement for the city of Dublin.
Data centres will, they reckon, account for 30% of demand inside the next decade
In the absence of this, extra demand generated by data centres there would be no great increase in required electricity generation in the medium-term.
New demand from electric vehicles and from heat pumps replacing oil-fired central heating would be offset by the improvements in energy efficiency which have been under way in recent decades.
Demand has been flat despite population growth and economic expansion, but EirGrid, the transmission system operator, expects this to change. Data centres will, they reckon, account for 30% of demand inside the next decade.
Transforming the electricity system away from fossil fuels and towards low- or zero-carbon technology was going to be difficult and expensive, even at the current level of demand. Add in the extra requirement from data centres and it just got 30% harder.
EirGrid has just released a 190-page study on transforming the system to reflect Government priorities on climate action and is seeking responses from the public.
There are underground lines in cities over short stretches but for a national network, the extra cost would run into hundreds of millions for a single long-distance connection
The document omits an estimate of the full system costs of the planned move to renewable electricity.
The cost will be enormous, including the bill for generation units and for transmission and it will have to be kept under control, since all costs will be recovered from electricity consumers.
EirGrid has outlined some alternative approaches to building out the needed infrastructure.
Since high voltage transmission lines need tall pylons which are unsightly, there have been demands that they be buried underground. This makes maintenance difficult, but the big objection is cost.
There are underground lines in cities over short stretches but for a national network, the extra cost would run into hundreds of millions for a single long-distance connection.
It is fair to ask why data centres are so keen to locate in Ireland, a country with a limited domestic demand for their services.
Data centres employ very few people and the equipment is largely imported
Northern European locations are preferred but there are many other countries just as suitable.
The answer is that Ireland does not charge companies the full whack for grid connections and access to network support. This policy dates to the 1950s when inward investment and job creation was the priority.
Data centres employ very few people and the equipment is largely imported. The main domestic input into their service, mainly exported, is electricity, so Ireland generates more electricity, exports it, is attributed extra domestic emissions under current methodology and incurs extra system costs not borne by the data centres.
There is an analogy with the mismeasurement of agricultural emissions – most farm output is exported too.
Emissions should be attributed by consumption rather than production – the petrol and diesel you consume is debited, quite properly, to Ireland rather than to Saudi Arabia.
At a more basic level, what precisely is the point in adding more energy-hungry data centres with negligible employment when carbon-efficient dairy farmers are being browbeaten about emissions?
The coalition of environmental and community groups Stop Climate Chaos, including Concern, Trócaire and Friends of the Earth, has been most vocal in opposition to the data centre explosion.
On this aspect of climate policy, they deserve support from farm organisations.