The Irish government has raised the issue of internet energy efficiency, as it looks to lower the electricity used by some of the country’s vast new datacentres.
Using the internet doesn’t just draw on electricity for your own device. Instead, each action also involves a datacentre, which needs to not only store and retrieve data, but also be kept at optimal temperature and humidity conditions in order to work effectively. There are also backups that need to run so the datacentres can continue to operate even in the case of a power outage from their primary supply. All this requires an enormous amount of energy.
Few places have noticed these issues more than Ireland, following the decision by many tech giants (among them Amazon and Microsoft) to set up huge datacentres in and around Dublin. Some of the largest facilities can draw on as much power as a small town – meaning that if current trends continue, well over a quarter of Ireland’s national electricity output would be taken up by datacentres by 2029.
To combat this, the Irish government has pledged to only approve the development of new datacentres if they can flexibly reduce power consumption. One example already in use involves monitoring the national grid and shutting off electricity to the datacentre if levels dip below a certain threshold – forcing the centre to rely on its backup.
Others simply switch off power at certain pre-defined, peak times.
All this isn’t just an issue over the Irish Sea, of course, but one that all countries – the UK included – must consider.
In London a new housing development faced delay in getting connected to the National Grid because electrical capacity was being taken up by large datacentres. In fact, some suggest that new housing developments could be put back by an entire decade for similar reasons, despite the residential property shortage in the capital.
One way to switch people on to the considerations of datacentre power usage is to change the wording around the issue. Currently, terms such as ‘cloud computing’ bring to mind ethereal locations where things simply happen. As datacentre physicist at Eaton, Ciaran Forde, told the BBC, these terms are highly misleading, and in reality a datacentre is “a very physical thing”.