Governments prevaricate when policy objectives are in conflict and pretend that trade-offs can be ignored.

Local and national politicians espouse greater housing provision while siding with objectors to each specific development in their constituencies.

More housing must be somewhere else, not around here. The substitution of distant targets for immediate action is also the default formula in policies to delay climate change. State agencies pursue contradictory policies and the trade-offs are never reconciled or even acknowledged.

National targets for carbon emissions have been adopted and allocated to each sector of the economy and the trade-offs are inescapable: excess emissions in one sector imply reductions in the targets for others. Failures will see financial penalties from the European Union and the abandonment of the national targets. Since targets have been set for dates as early as 2030, the clock is already ticking.

This process is most visible in the extraordinary proliferation of data centres in Ireland. When final data for 2023 becomes available, they will show that about 20% of total electricity demand is being absorbed in Ireland’s data centres, which store and process data for third-party users, mainly located outside Ireland.

Data centres prefer locations in cooler parts of Europe where they are prodigious consumers of electricity.

The portion of electricity output they absorb has risen from negligible figures to 20% in little over a decade. This percentage is easily the highest of any EU country – according to UCC’s Hannah Daly writing in The Irish Times last week, most European countries use 2% of their electricity output in data centres and the Netherlands, which comes second in the EU rankings, uses just 5%.

There are restrictions on new data centres in the Netherlands where generation capacity is tight. This is not a league table that any country should seek to lead.

If Ireland was endowed both with plentiful cheap electricity and the transmission networks to connect customers and to export, Ireland’s top spot would be an achievement. It makes sense to focus on sectors where the country enjoys a competitive advantage. But the capital equipment deployed in data centres is mainly imported.

With low direct employment, the principal component in the exported value-added of the industry is electricity. Eirgrid, the State company which handles new connections for large loads, has already placed restrictions on new data centre developments in the Dublin area, where the electricity supply situation is also inhibiting new housing projects.

Output from the Corrib field is declining and Ireland does not have an import terminal for liquefied natural gas, so increased dependence on gas imports from the UK is implied by current policy

New generation capacity at affordable cost is proving elusive. Recent auctions entitling the winners to price guarantees have not attracted bidders and the guaranteed prices may have to be increased, resulting in further pressure on consumer costs.

The cheapest form of renewable power is onshore wind, but rural communities are now opposing planning applications for turbines and also for pylons to transport power.

Onshore wind

There has been a marked slowdown in the pace of expansion of onshore wind and there is resistance also to new solar farms. Demand for electricity is growing again, driven by the switch to electric heating for buildings and away from oil- and gas-fired systems, as well as electric propulsion for cars.

Much of the demand growth is coming from the IDA’s success in attracting data centres.

There is fresh demand worldwide from artificial intelligence and an idiosyncratic rise in ‘mining’ for cryptocurrencies, which entails intensive reliance on cloud computing and data centres.

Ireland has volunteered to host a disproportionate share of this new export traffic when facing an acknowledged inability to meet domestic demand.

The Dublin area is running out of water, and data centres are big users. Some water-deficit states in the US are discouraging new data centres and Irish Water has joined Eirgrid in expressing concern about the situation in Dublin.

The two national utilities responsible for electric power and water are clearly uncomfortable with the IDA’s enthusiasm for more data centres and Irish Water faces opposition to its plans to spend €1.65bn extracting surplus water from the Shannon for diversion to Dublin. A programme to fix the leakage problems will not be enough on its own.

Other things being equal, there is no economic case for promoting an export sector where Ireland offers no locational advantages.

Intermittent power

As Hannah Daly points out, renewables are intermittent, data centres need to be always-on, so there must be backup electricity. Even though the coal, peat and oil-fired power stations will be phased out, there will be an increased requirement for gas-fired units since there will be more intermittent power on the system.

Output from the Corrib field is declining and Ireland does not have an import terminal for liquefied natural gas, so increased dependence on gas imports from the UK is implied by current policy. Why encourage pressure on dwindling power and water supplies? With few natural advantages, promoting data centres is like advocating banana plantations in Donegal.