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No incentives from EPA for data centers to lower back-up generator emissions.

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Power hungry data-centres that are currently putting a major demand on Irelands national grid are additional producing tens of thousands of tonnes of C02 yearly from there back-up generators.

These generators are present at a number of sites including Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft data centers, and are tested throughout the year to make sure they are in working order in case of a power outage.

Each of the 10 sites of the aforementioned companies require a license from the Environmental Protection Agency to test these diesel generators as they are used for over 18 hours a year and produce C02.

The yearly total of tonnes of C02 produced from testing back-up generators is 10,566.4, which accounts for 3,929,094 litres of diesel.

Infographic outlining equivalency of backup generators.

When asked what the EPA’s plans were to lower this amount, Darragh Page, Programme Manager in the EPA’s Office of Environmental Enforcement stated that;

“There isn’t a plan for an incentive scheme/ the primary reason they would want to minimize the use of [back-up generators] is simply the cost/ that’s the real incentive”.

Data however has become one of the worlds most valuable resources with Meta (formerly Facebook) recording $114 billion out of the $117 billion earned in revenue in 2021 coming from advertisements.

In a similar vein LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, earned more than $3 billion in 2020 by allowing advertisers access to its data base of over 700 million users.

Is storing data a good thing?

Quoted by The Journal, Emanuela Ferrari of Futureproof Clare states that “A lot of data is stored that it can be sold on for advertising” and that “There’s been a trend of pushing everything online, and that’s a trend that’s been driven by corporations”.

The danger that holding onto massive amounts of personal data poses on society has already been seen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Interview with Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytic Whistleblower

In short, the data that Meta (formally Facebook) stored on its users was sold on and used to create an algorithm which indicated which voters were susceptible to what kind of persuasive messaging. These messages were then advertised to the voter when they used the internet and can be argued that it swayed both the Brexit vote and the 2016 United States presidential election.

In Ireland specifically we face our own set of challenges from the meteoric rise in data centres popping up around the country.

Ireland recently lost out to Germany to home Intel’s multi-billion euro chip fabrication plant, which would have brought with it thousands of jobs.

It was reported that Intel had a number of concerns with the country’s energy limitation and water supply uncertainties both of which a consequence of Irelands “open-arm policy” to data centres.

Potential Solutions.

As it stands, it looks like data centres are here to stay despite the drawbacks. However, there are potential solutions to the matter of energy consumption which would also elevate any need for back-up generators.

When speaking to Prof. Nick Gray, Director of the Trinity Centre for the Environment, he outlined that what is needed is a system similar to the “water demand management” seen in countries such as Germany and Denmark.

Gray outlines how this system works;

“How it works is if you want to start up a new company using water that exceeds what is already available, rather than abstract more water creating more environmental damage you have to find ways of supplying that water within the existing available water budget by investing in household reduction technologies etc”.

He also suggests that this system would work in the energy sector;

“Likewise if a company wants to have a large energy demand then it needs to find ways to supply that energy through building renewables or investing in energy reduction technologies within the local community, thereby releasing the energy it needs”.

This solution would potentially elevate any need for back-up generators, and therefore the testing of them, as the system itself only works within the capacity of the grid. Essentially meaning that power outages or failures should not occur from the overuse of electricity.

Large hard drives in data centre. Photo by imgix on Unsplash

Gray finished by stating his fears for the current system we have in place;

“in Ireland we are faced with increasing demands to reduce energy usage while possibly allowing data centres to consume over 50% of our current generation capacity.  It really does not make sense. Plus, the extra demand from electric vehicles will mean that the demand for energy will rapidly increase and far outstrip our reliable generating capacity”

“The requirements of data centres will lead I suspect to power cuts and because of the nature of these centres they will take precedent over other users including possibly hospitals.  It is a disaster waiting to happen and will do nothing to help our continued and urgent fight to reduce carbon emissions”.

Grays fears for Ireland are backed by data centres such as the EdgeConneX site. The Lucan based data centre doubles the emission output of the ten Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft sites, producing up to 21,544 tonnes of C02 a year.

The site does this through 12 natural gas and 16 diesel powered generators.

The 12 natural gas generators are in place to work in tandem with the substation to the north-east section of the facility, in order to produce the electricity to power the data centre.

The EPA has signed off on additional generators being added to this site on two separate occasions, creating its current tally.

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