Data centre demands for gas connections 'could damage Ireland's emissions targets'

Data centre demands for gas connections 'could damage Ireland's emissions targets'

The number of Irish data centres' requests for gas connections has risen in each of the last three years. Stock picture

Data centre operators are requesting connections to gas networks to fire their own generators because they cannot connect to the national electricity grid, prompting warnings about emissions and energy security.

Figures seen by the Irish Examiner show that demand for gas connections from data centres has risen each year from 2019 to 2021, while the chairwoman of the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU) told an Oireachtas committee on Tuesday that Gas Networks Ireland (GNI) had flagged the issue because it could create higher than anticipated demand for gas.

Ireland has committed to reducing its natural gas consumption by 15% this winter as part of an EU-wide effort but a review of the Irish energy system published this week warns that since the National Development Plan was published, a large number of industrial and commercial premises have been connecting to gas pipelines.

The review, conducted by Cambridge Economic Policy Associates, states: 

“Gas Networks Ireland has told us that it has contracted with a significant number of I&C [industrial and commercial] gas connections, primarily related to the development and construction of data centres.

CRU chairwoman, Aoife MacEvilly, told the Oireachtas environment committee that Gas Networks Ireland had flagged that the increase in connection requests could create a much higher demand profile. File picture
CRU chairwoman, Aoife MacEvilly, told the Oireachtas environment committee that Gas Networks Ireland had flagged that the increase in connection requests could create a much higher demand profile. File picture

“However, we understand that most new data centre gas connections contracted by GNI are related to so-called ‘islanded’ data centres that require a direct gas connection for on-site power generation, with limited or no connection to the electricity grid. These new connections may lead to an increase in I&C gas demand above the levels assumed in our analysis.”

A spokesperson for GNI said that for reasons of commercial confidentiality, it is unable to provide information on specific customers, or their energy use.

On Tuesday, Aoife MacEvilly of the CRU told the Oireachtas environment committee that there had been an increase in connection requests to gas networks for the purposes of running generators.

“[GNI] flagged to us that, from the time that we put in place the new connection policy on the electricity network, which would have precluded many new projects from signing up to the electricity network, it started seeing increased requests for data centre connections to the gas network on the basis that data centres would operate their own gas-fired generation on site. 

"GNI flagged to us that this could create a much higher demand profile on the gas network.”

Sinn Féin senator Lynn Boylan said the connections showed a lack of planning.

“There’s a lack of strategic planning that is damning for Fine Gael particularly. 

This will make it so much harder to meet emissions targets. If those companies can’t access gas, the backup will be diesel, which is worse again.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment said that any centre not hooked up to the electricity grid could damage Irish emissions targets.

"The policy statement highlights the undesirability of 'islanded' data centres that would generate their own electricity from natural gas. The decarbonisation section of the Government Statement states:

"Islanded data centre developments, that are not connected to the electricity grid and are powered mainly by on-site fossil fuel generation, would not be in line with national policy. 

"These would run counter to emissions reduction objectives and would not serve the wider efficiency and decarbonisation of our energy system. Growth in 'islanded’ data centres could result in security of supply risk being transferred from electricity to gas supply, which would be a significant challenge given Ireland’s reliance on gas importation.”

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