Wednesday 26 July 2017

Tech giants eye Irish-led green data centre plan

Wicklow businessman's green data centre solution can save tech giants €25m a year writes John Reynolds

Data centres - large warehouses full of computer servers - are the engines of the internet and are critical to modern business and society Photo: Frank McGrath
Data centres - large warehouses full of computer servers - are the engines of the internet and are critical to modern business and society Photo: Frank McGrath

John Reynolds

A consortium of technology firms planning to build and lease huge new data centres and locate them beside large greenhouses, indoor ski slopes or water desalination plants around the world - and at least one US tech giant - are adopting a solution to radically cut their CO2 emissions using a system that a Wicklow businessman first proposed to implement in his native county.

Brian McDonagh, who previously founded Ecologic Data Centres, is helping one US tech equipment maker and a number of other industry heavyweights in the UK and Asia to form a joint venture to build and operate this crucial IT infrastructure on a leased basis for large tech giants.

The news emerged as Apple was granted planning permission by An Bord Pleanala for an €850m data centre in Galway.

McDonagh declined to name the companies involved in the venture, but added that they are well-known names in the IT industry.

Ireland risks losing out to other countries if it does not adopt greener methods of powering data centres, and missed the chance to be first to adopt the solution in Co Wicklow, he argues.

"On the scale that we're looking at, we can reduce a data centre's €160m electricity bill by €25m a year and save millions of tonnes of CO2. I've already consulted on a project for one US tech giant also present in Ireland that is building an ultra-efficient one beside a greenhouse in Holland, like the one I originally planned to build [but which did not go ahead] in north Wicklow, so this is definitely the future.

"Ireland could take a lead in this, but firms in other countries we're talking to may take on our solution next. This is a huge business opportunity requiring design and construction services as well as vast amounts of equipment - some of which is manufactured in Ireland," he said.

Data centres - large warehouses full of computer servers - are the engines of the internet and are critical to modern business and society. But the energy-hungry 'cloud' is responsible for the same greenhouse gas emissions as the global airline industry, about 2pc, and use a third more electricity than the entire UK in one year. Furthermore, the amount of energy they use is doubling every four years, according to Britain's foremost data centre expert Prof Ian Bitterlin.

McDonagh's solution is a patented technology called a desuperheater. This takes the massive amounts of heat the computer servers generate, captures it and uses it to heat a refrigerant gas, in turn generating more energy to power an adjacent facility such as a greenhouse.

The method also uses natural gas, powering a combined heat and power (CHP) unit to produce electricity to power the data centres. At the moment data centres draw their power from the electricity grid which is inefficient because of transmission losses. McDonagh's solution also uses the CO2 the CHP unit produces in the greenhouse, which is much more eco-friendly.

Gas Networks Ireland Innovation Manager Ian Kilgallon agreed the solution works.

"This CO2-saving approach is one of the most innovative we've seen. The technologies are commercially and technically viable," he said.

"Cost competitiveness and greater energy security and efficiency are a critical focus of many data centre developers. They all have CHP units onsite to provide emergency backup anyway, but they are very rarely used, despite having gone to the expense of installing them."

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