Renewable energy is all very well, but how far will the wind carry us, asks former Engineers Ireland president Dr Chris Horn.

It has taken the pandemic for the value of cloud computing to be widely understood. Virtual conference calls, routine office tasks and group collaboration tools can be productive from anywhere, provided that there is a half-decent internet connection.

The entire point of cloud computing is that data and computing power can be delivered on demand, in any place and at any time. The actual location of the server computers involved relative to those who are using them is unimportant, as long as there is sufficient bandwidth available to connect them. Like electricity, computing power is available whenever and wherever you need it, regardless of where the 'generating station' is located.

Except that cloud computing prodigiously consumes electric power. Individual chips continue to need ever less electrical power to deliver even more computing, but are delicate when racked together by the tens of thousands into a data centre.

Temperature, dew point and humidity must be carefully regulated, sometimes needing more power to moderate the ambient operating environment than that used directly for the computing itself.

The power requirement of an average single data centre is extraordinary, at 50-60 megawatts, matching for example the energy consumption of a small city such as Kilkenny. EirGrid has already agreed to connect data centres with a total nationwide requirement of 1,800MW of electric power, and has a backlog of applications totalling a further 2,000MW.

Our peak national energy requirement is currently a little more than 5,000MW, and so the impact of adding the power needed for 30-plus Kilkenny-sized cities is fundamental.

A 2013 report by international research company 451 Advisors predicted that Ireland would develop as a leading location for data centres, not least because of our increasing use of wind and solar power to address climate change.

Our climate is now, well, changing: we may be in the transition away from relatively steady winds to long periods of calm, occasional downpours and heavy winter storms. 

EirGrid publishes our national energy production every 15 minutes. It is telling to observe that for numerous periods during this summer and autumn, renewable energy met only a few per cent of national electricity demand despite our substantial investment in wind and solar farms.

The carbon project

The tenaciousness of the Department of Enterprise to nurture even more power-hungry data centres has as its backdrop the fact that, by 2030, 1,550MW of older generating stations that use coal, peat and fossil fuel will be retired. Ireland is internationally committed to decarbonisation.

Our society and our economy are required to decrease our use of fossil fuels for heating and transport and in favour of increasing consumption of electricity for heat pumps, electric transport and vehicles, not just for data centres. The public 'range anxiety' about fully switching to electric vehicles could well soon be replaced by 'electricity anxiety' in response to potential power blackouts.

The Department of Finance may be concerned by international pressure on Ireland’s corporate tax policy, but this issue will rapidly become largely irrelevant if we have regular blackouts or renege on the power commitments to industry, let alone the public.

The Irish Academy of Engineering has recently published an apprehensive analysis on our national energy strategy. It observes that the requirement is not just for the energy generated over any particular second (measured in megawatts) but the production capacity (energy production over a sustained period, measured in megawatt hours).

Rather than retiring generation from conventional sources of energy, our production capacity from these sources may have to substantially increase to provide cover when renewables are weak. The intermittent nature of wind and solar energy places considerable strain on our current gas-powered generators, leading to higher maintenance costs and potentially shorter operating lifetimes.

Furthermore, international prices for gas are rising very sharply, our own domestic supply of natural gas may be exhausted by 2030 and we have no strategic gas storage facility.

Windless day

Innovation is needed. Can Science Foundation Ireland lead an urgent national research effort to find strategic solutions to sustain renewable power?

Sustainability implies the long-term storage of surplus renewable energy sufficient for days and even for weeks. To give a perspective, we would need about 30 pumped storage schemes like Turlough Hill to fulfil our total national energy demand just for a single windless day.

Can Irish-based researchers and engineers find pragmatic solutions using pumped fluids, electrolysis for hydrogen, silicon phase-change batteries or other creative approaches?

Could waste heat from data centres be repurposed for sustainable storage, and could data centre waste heat schemes such as the Tallaght district heating initiative be extended?

Should we not now give top national priority to undergraduates, postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers in material, chemical and other sciences specifically for heavy electric power applications?

Ireland is not a world leader in wind generation turbines or solar panels, but could we develop leadership in the sustainable use of renewables?

Just keeping the lights on is becoming our top national imperative. Reputations and careers have been lost in lesser challenges. 

This article first appeared in The Irish Times on September 23, 2021.

Author: Dr Chris Horn, former president of Engineers Ireland, is the co-founder, CEO and chairman of IONA Technologies, industry expert on Irish technology development, trends, and business. As an honorary Doctor of Science from Trinity College Dublin and former TCD lecturer in computer science, Dr Horn is at the forefront of the Irish high-tech debate.