Last weekend, I met a family living in Ireland whose members dress like the Amish. They wear homespun, all-concealing clothes in plain, dark colours and engage only sparingly with modern technology.
They were perfectly courteous and at ease with their lifestyle choices, and I found it curiously uplifting to see how some people have chosen to stop the clock and unplug themselves from the Digital Age.
But swimming against the tide takes enormous conviction and determination, and for many of us data is essential grease on the wheels of our daily lives. We use it for remote working and education, online banking and shopping and to connect with friends and family.
We watch films and concerts online, keep up with current affairs online, read articles online, listen to podcasts, documentaries or discussions online, attend meetings online – it’s embedded in our routines.
The web’s grip has been partly accelerated because banks, to take one example, are making it difficult to use their services if you don’t do it virtually. All sorts of businesses, from insurance providers to utilities, interact with us via online accounts.
Even when we leave our homes to attend bricks-and-mortar venues such as theatres or cinemas, or catch buses or trains, we’re encouraged to book tickets online.
Much everyday web engagement is conducted via email, and saving files is commonplace, meaning we also operate virtual filing cabinets – few will shed a tear if that particular item of furniture becomes obsolete.
Email accounts, photos, videos and documents are held in huge computer servers inside data centres. So far, so good for fully paid-up users of the information superhighway – those data centres act as an enabler for the digital economy. But they also gobble electricity, hoovering up a disproportionate 14pc of energy from the national power grid, and guzzle water to cool the servers.
Which brings me to their impact on the environment.
Some months ago, members of South Dublin County Council voted to ban any new data centres in their catchment area, concerned about strains on the national grid. At least six amber alerts took place last year.
Earlier this week, the Government ordered the council to reverse its prohibition, with junior minister Peter Burke telling it its ban breached national and regional policy.
Could the Government be reacting to pressure from the Lord High Multinationals, always pushing for more, more, more data centres? There are currently 70 such facilities nationwide, housing information for Amazon, Facebook and Google, among others. Ireland is heavily dependent on 10 multinationals that pay more than half of our soaring corporate tax receipts. They were responsible for almost a quarter of all tax revenues in the first half of this year.
Politically, we’ve always been extremely accommodating toward these giants, recognising how the national finances count on them, and the latest exchequer returns emphasise our reliance.
Yesterday, the latest government figures showed a €5bn surplus was generated in the seven months to the end of last month. Record receipts are due to increases in corporate tax collected, in addition to higher Vat and income tax takes.
Some of the Vat surge is due to rising prices in the economy, with inflation running at more than 9pc. But the Department of Finance noted healthy exchequer revenues were partly driven by “significant increases in profitability in the multinational sector”. In short, they have us over a barrel.
Two facts to mull over now. One: multinationals want more data centres, as mentioned earlier. Two: government policy supports data centres.
Clearly, the coalition wants to set up additional centres, energy-intensive though they are – and maybe even turn Ireland into a data centre capital. The Office of the Planning Regulator recently told that independent-minded Dublin council there was “a national objective to promote Ireland as a sustainable international destination for ICT infrastructure such as data centres”.
The office doesn’t make policy, but it ensures planning policy is correctly implemented.
Let’s consider the organising principle behind this policy decision about data centres. Is it to be extra-lovely to multinationals, which already benefit from our nicer-than-nice corporate tax arrangements? To create jobs?
Arguably, having a data centre facility boosts the likelihood of companies locating other operations here. But data centres alone aren’t particularly useful employers, accounting for only 1,800 jobs nationwide.
Draining the national grid by 14pc is hefty usage for so few jobs. Worldwide, only 2pc of electricity is consumed by data centres, suggesting Ireland is carrying a top-heavy number of them. They account for just under 2pc of all greenhouse gas emissions, but extra data centres equals extra emissions and considerably intensified electricity use.
Consequently, the question is whether opening our door to data centres is correct policy – especially if it conflicts with green policy. And what about pressure on the grid?
Wind energy is always cited as a solution, but wind energy is insufficient and not consistent enough to supply needs – after all, the wind doesn’t blow every day.
Government policy has set ambitious emissions and renewable energy targets by 2030, and meeting such goals undoubtedly will be more challenging if additional centres are built. As households cope with surging energy bills, it is inconsistent to persist in granting planning permission to power-hungry data centres.
Last year, Dr Patrick Bresnihan of NUI Maynooth told the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Climate Change that an average data centre uses as much electricity as a small city like Kilkenny.
Finally, what’s the point of councillors if they can’t vote on matters affecting their area? A motion was proposed by People Before Profit’s Madeleine Johansson and passed by the South Dublin County Council majority. It smacks of authoritarianism to overturn a council’s democratic mandate.