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At the (data) centre of the problem – undercover at the Data Centre Conference

By 20th December 2021 No Comments

At the (data) centre of the problem 

Undercover at the Data Centre Conference

Big Tech data centres could use as much water as a small town, as well as huge amounts of energy from our grid. [1] It’s got everyone talking and some political parties have been trying to ban them. [2] 

That’s why Big Tech bosses are engaged in a huge lobbying campaign, and they organised a big conference last month as part of it. Everyone in the industry was there – from data centre asset managers to corporate buyers. [3] 

We couldn’t miss this huge opportunity for us to gather information, and spread our message to some of the most powerful players in the industry – so Michelle, one of our staff members, and two Uplift members, Dylan and William, attended to get the scoop. 

The conference had been pitched to industry and profit makers with regular advertising in the lead up in the Sunday Business Post paper (including sponsored content after the event!). [4]

Greenwashing galore 

We had a plan in place, leaflets to hand and hard questions to be asked of the panellists. Uplift members chipped in to get flyers printed so we could highlight how deadly and unpopular data centres are – and put our message directly into industry players’ hands. 

But nothing could have prepared us for the level of greenwashing we witnessed – there were misleading, exaggerated and outright untrue claims being made to make the industry sound sustainable.

Our own state agencies are bought into the racket – with our electricity network, ESB, listed as the main sponsor of the conference and EirGrid (the state-owned electric power operator) gushing over data centres at the event and vice versa.

Exhibitors had flashy displays, sometimes not even realising their own contradictions that were on display.

The program of talks at the conference consisted of an array of terms littered with words typically used by climate campaigners – co-opted for their greenwashing agenda.

Debunking data centre decarbonisation

There was talk of “carbon-neutral data” and “decarbonising the grid”, but in reality if the data centre sector is allowed to keep growing, it’s going to result in more fossil-fueled gas-burning power plants

The looming energy crisis caused by data centre growth is also strengthening the case for approving the disastrous Shannon LNG proposal – a giant terminal in Co. Kerry to import fracked gas from the US, which would lock us into fossil gas for decades. 

Stop dirty data centres 

The only sensible response would be to put a pause on expansion. A moratorium on data centres will allow us as a society to debate and agree on our energy priorities on our terms: how much for big tech and data and how much for homes, schools, cars etc. 

You can sign the petition to stop fossil-fuelled data centres here. [5]

You can read more about dirty data centres in our previous blog post here. [6]

Greenhouse gas 

When the CEO of EirGrid, Mark Foley, spoke at the opening session at the Data Centres Conference, he seemed very keen to assure the data centre industry that he – and EirGrid – were on their side. He said he was opposed to a moratorium on new data centres. He even went on to say “fair play to the Minister [Eamon Ryan] for allowing more gas” as news breaks that the supposedly Green party leader is to give the go ahead for more gas fossil fuel plants, locking us into reliance on fossil fuels for decades to come. [7] 

But what is really worrying is that Mark Foley said in a later meeting that Ireland would need an additional 2GW of gas generation to meet the projected increase in electricity demand. That is staggering – that’s roughly the consumption of 2 million homes. And according to themselves – a significant part of the increase in demand is coming from data centres. [8]

So while the Government is supposedly aiming to reduce Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by 2030 – a really challenging target that requires an immediate and drastic shift away from fossil fuels – data centre growth is adding a colossal amount of new fossil fuel generation to the system. 

Something for climate campaigners to note from one of the other panellists, Peter Connolly; he said global data centres will lose interest if policy makers don’t act by allowing data centres to have their own gas. 

Not here, not anywhere 

In another talk, we heard Maurice from Mortal Equinix say “if it’s not going to happen here it’s going to happen somewhere else … and we’d be annoyed.”  The “we” he’s referencing must be the guys we overheard saying “it’s all about return on capital €€€” – while queueing to go into the talk.

Ex-Labour Party TD and previous chairperson of the Oireachtas Environment Committee now IBEC data centre lobbyist, Michael McCarthy, had his own session to tell us how he’s now effectively sold out on climate action. His new role involves helping Google, Amazon and Microsoft with their greenwash by having him flaunt the role he previously led on the Government’s Climate action plan when he was in government. [9] 

Michael said Ireland has “a huge amount of resources to exploit” – the exploitation of our land, water and energy supplies for dirty data centres is not a selling point for most ordinary people.

But don’t worry – Mark O’Neill, a “data centre evangelist” and ex-Microsoft employee assures us “Microsoft are sensitive to their impact on land and water but tech is going to fix it” – but what’s not made clear is that most of the investment from tech into renewable energy generation is being fed right back into the data centres themselves. [10]

This is not a drill! 

Halfway through the former TD’s talk – the fire alarm goes off and the conference is evacuated. Conveniently, this happens to be at the same time as a planned protest against data centres right outside the hall.

As we joined the protest outside the gate, we watched as men in suits spilled outside the RDS to be faced by protesters, placards and megaphones. People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith was amongst the protesters, as well as climate and political groups. [11]

When the conference reconvened, we joined a talk on EU regulation, where Emma Fryer of Data Centres TechUK, tells us how data centres are not a regulated sector i.e. there is no specific legislation on them. Another speaker Rabih Bashroush of IT Infrastructure Advisory says “We don’t understand our industry nor do regulators. We don’t understand what KPIs we’re measuring”.

Questions to Una Fitzpatrick of Technology Ireland (another business lobby group) about whether each state should just hold their own data rather than have it centralised in Ireland, for example, were batted off. 

In response to a comment about data being floated between countries, we asked questions to the panel were they of the opinion that all of this data was “being floated” and stored in Ireland because of regulatory issues here as we’re a “GDPR bottleneck”. It’s been widely reported that Ireland’s Data Protection Commission has been lenient on tech companies so we asked the question – are tech giants taking advantage and setting up headquarters here? [12]

Una says she didn’t believe this was the reason why headquarters are here, that there’s a number of factors including tax [haven], market [€€€] etc. The panel laughed and treated the question as some sort of a joke.

Meanwhile, here are the headlines….[13]

The final session of the day, again with sustainability in the title, had John Clarke Energy, a gas lobbyist on the panel, who proudly announced he was invited personally to speak at the conference every year.

Before we got a chance to leave, an Uplift staff member was confronted by data centre lobbyist Garry Connolly of Host in Ireland. He didn’t like how we publicly documented the greenwashing at the conference online and decided to corner her as everyone was leaving. They don’t like it when we point out that data centres won’t save the bees nor can be linked to saving the giant panda apparently – which is what was on display to attendees at the conference! 

Here are the tweets in case you missed them…

See the full thread we tweeted live from the conference here. [14]

From the conference and data centres debates beyond, it is clear the Irish government, political establishment, state agencies etc are all blinkered by neoliberal ideology – everything is geared towards maintaining the profits of corporations, and the solution to everything is more growth, more consumption, more demand, more supply – under a massive greenwashing umbrella.

When it comes to the climate and energy crises caused by data centres, the response – bizarrely – is to just increase supply, even when that will mean driving our climate emissions in the wrong direction. 

Real climate action requires that we use less energy. 

Blog written by conference attendees Michelle, Uplift staff with contributions from William Hedderman, journalist, Uplift member and campaigner.

NOTES: 

[1] The Journal: Major report from Eirgrid says Ireland may have electricity shortages over next five winters & Computer Weekly: Power supply issues threaten growth of Europe’s second-biggest data centre hub & Business Post: Data centres use same amount of water as large towns

[2] Data center dynamics: Bill banning new data center developments introduced in Ireland & Data center dynamics: Irish Social Democrats to motion for data center moratorium

[3] DataCentres Ireland – The Country’s Largest Data Centre Event

[4] Business Post: Local and global figures bring data centre expertise to Dublin #sponsored & Business Post: Data centre conference tackles energy issue head-on #sponsored

[5] Uplift petition: Stop Power-Hungry Data Centres

[6] Uplift blog: #DataCentres: Don’t let big tech steal our light

[7] Irish Times: New gas-fired power plants to ‘bridge gap’ to renewables

[8] Twitter: Slí Eile thread

[9] IBEC: Michael McCarthy confirmed as Director of Cloud Infrastructure Ireland

[10] The Phoenix: McCarthy’s Cloud Thinking

[11] Data centre dynamics: Climate protesters stage demo outside Data Centres Ireland event in Dublin & Newstalk: “We’re facing down the barrel of blackouts”. Protest calls for halt to new data centres & RTE: Industry event hears Ireland a data centre hotspot

[12] Irish Times: Una Mullally: Why are we facilitating data centres? 

[13] Irish Times: Ireland is a ‘GDPR bottleneck’ that lets big tech off the hook & Politico: ‘Contrary to everything we believe in’: Irish data watchdog lobbied for business-friendly GDPR & Independent: MEPs call for EU action against Ireland over data protection & Irish Times: DPC needs an overhaul of funding, structure and leadership & Silicon Republic: EU official warns data rules may need to change – putting Irish DPC in the spotlight & Irish Examiner: Data protection watchdog rejects accusations it lobbied on behalf of tech giants

[14] Uplift twitter: live tweets from conference