Massive data centre demands could lead to power blackouts, warns Ireland's utilities regulator

Ireland has an energy problem and the biggest cause of it is data centres from global tech giants.

Data centres are putting a potentially unsustainable strain on the nation's electricity grid, Ireland's utilities watchdog has warned.

The situation has become so bad that Ireland's Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) has warned in a consultation paper that the nation could face rolling blackouts if the situation isn't rectified. The prospect of extended blackouts from data centre energy demand has prompted EirGrid to raise an alarm. 

"EirGrid have highlighted the considerable challenge the electricity consumer faces over the coming years. The worst outcome of which could result in load shedding and ultimately rolling blackouts. This is not acceptable to the CRU and measures need to be introduced to manage the supply demand balance," CRU said in its report.   

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The CRU considers that data centres are "the single largest homogenous demand driver" on the grid and wants data centre operators to provide answers to enable further grid integration in order to maintain the security of electricity supply.

EirGrid has told the CRU that data centres and the demand load they require are "having a major impact on the Irish electricity system currently and into the foreseeable future." 

Ireland's energy supply problems are not new. In 2017, EirGrid warned that growing energy demand in Ireland was mainly from new data centres, which are already putting a strain on Dublin's infrastructure.

Until it upgrades transmission equipment in Dublin, it said it may need generators to cope with demand in the short term. EirGrid said it expects data centres to account for 15% of total energy demand by 2026 – up from less than 2% in 2015.

The CRU has considered three scenarios: do nothing and wait for blackouts, impose a moratorium on data centre connections, or let EirGrid request data centres to throttle consumption. 

"In this [second] scenario CRU could issue a Direction to the system operators to cease processing all data centre connection applications (including modifications) and new connection applications for a number of years," the CRU wrote of its moratorium option. 

"The CRU does not consider this appropriate at this time as there are mechanisms that data centres can employ which in the CRUs view can contribute to their overall flexibility."

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A third option is imposing "connection measures" that would let EirGrid and fellow system operator ESBN prioritize data centre connection applications based on several categories that would protect the supply of energy. This includes data centre operators reducing energy consumption when requested by EirGrid.  

CRU considers the third option the most balanced and preferred option. 

"This option should allow the data centre industry to continue to connect in a manner which respects the overall system integrity while balancing the needs of the consumer to have a secure and stable supply of electricity," the CRU said. 

According to the Irish Times, a data centre with a load of 60 MW would be comparable to the load usage of a large town/small city such as Kilkenny.

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