How Prefabricated Modular Data Centres Can Support Sustainable Growth in Ireland

Guest post by Marc Garner, VP, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric UK & Ireland

Ireland has long been a popular location for data centres, in part due to the long-term industrial policy of encouraging high-technology industry clusters around key verticals, including pharmaceuticals, software, web development, and other digital-centric industries. This a strategy which requires both inward investment and indigenous growth, and somewhat inevitably, the availability of resilient IT and data centres, alongside excellent connectivity to the cloud.

There is, however, a downside to having so many large data centres in the country, namely the electrical power that is needed to keep them running. In recent times, we’ve seen a growing criticism from key stakeholders and environmental groups who have questioned the energy demand of the sector, and its impact on the country’s net-zero targets.

Added into this mix, the global surge in wholesale power and gas prices has led to a significant jump in both the unit price and standing charges for households and businesses, something further underlined by Electric Ireland, who last month announced that gas prices are set to increase almost 30% from August.

Amid this backdrop and following a public consultation, in late 2021 Ireland’s electricity network operator – EirGrid – began to notify data centre businesses that they would not provide new connections to Dublin-based facilities until 2028, and that any new applications would be assessed on a ‘case-by case basis’. In response, the sector has openly challenged the ‘estimated’ power consumption surrounding the industry and undertook its own analysis using data from the Irish Central Statistics Office (CSO).

The investigation compared statements detailing data centre power demands published by EirGrid with a landmark study of the actual metered electricity consumption of data centres by CSO Ireland. It found the majority of power reserved for data centres during Ireland’s energy crisis was left unused. In fact, data centres consumed only about 25% of the grid capacity that Ireland’s two state-owned grid operators reserve for them.

This argument will of course continue to play out, but it is essential that industry, CRU, and government come together to find collaborative solutions to these challenges without hindering enterprise innovation or GDP.

Further, data centres remain the heart of the digital economy, and as we begin to run metaverse type applications that require higher envelopes of power, and support applications in life sciences, financial services, gaming and streaming, sustainability and resilience will become ever more important to the country’s businesses.

What are prefabricated data centres?

At Schneider Electric, we believe that rather than being a hindrance, data centres can play a key role in unlocking Ireland’s sustainability and resilience ambitions, especially where integration with the grid is concerned.  Data centre designs, however, come in many forms, and in recent years they have transformed from traditional bricks and mortar designs to harnessing the power of prefabricated technology.

For many, prefabricated data centres provide a standardised, pre-engineered, and pre-integrated infrastructure system, containing integrated power, cooling, racks and IT that can be delivered as functional building blocks of power, cooling, IT or all-in one data centres.  in a secure. These modules are quick to deploy, predictable, and can be deployed for 15% less cost than traditional data centres.

Ireland has long been known as a key location for hyperscale data centre operators, and internet giants across the globe have been able to use the economics of scale offered by prefab, in addition to other technological innovations and the shift towards renewable energy, to increase capacity against the backdrop of prolific demands for data and connectivity.

The average business, however, is facing a soaring demand for data storage and space. Hosting their mission-critical applications in the cloud may not be an option, for various reasons including data regulation, compliance with local laws, and need for low latency connectivity.

Prefabricated modular data centres, therefore, offer several advantages for organisations seeking a fast, sustainable, and energy-efficient alternative to buying land or building a large-scale facility designed to accommodate future growth.

The sustainability benefits of prefabricated data centres

Modular data centres are built in the controlled environment of a factory, which means that the teams building the data centres have the experience and the skills to deliver a high-quality, reliable and pre-engineered system in a short space of time. In some scenarios, prefabricated data centres can meet demanding timescales of 12 weeks or less. In terms of sustainability, however, prefab offers specific advantages to local users, they include:

Sustainable construction methods: Prefabricated data centres offer increased reliability, operational energy savings and a smaller environmental footprint. They are also compliant with environmental regulations including RoHS and REACh, and include Product Environmental Profiles (PEPs) to help users easily calculate the carbon footprint of their physical infrastructure.

Reduced waste: Waste is significantly reduced compared to building a traditional data centre because of the vertical integration between the designers of the architecture, the procurement teams that obtain the components, and the assembly teams that integrate the system in the factory.

Right-sizing: Prefabricated modular data centres do not require the renovation of an existing building or the construction of a new facility. The modular architecture enables businesses to right-size, and run their data centres run at peak efficiency. Prefabricated deployments also enable companies to scale their data centre footprint in a modular, pay-for-what-you-need approach, thus not wasting resources.

Supply chain: Organisations not only want to know about the sustainability efforts and carbon footprint of their suppliers, but they want to understand the sustainability implications for the supply chain. Many vendors are already addressing this, and Schneider Electric for example, makes 90% of the components in its data centres, so it has expert knowledge of and control over how those components are made.

Transportation: The environmental impact of transporting a completed data centre from the factory to the customers site also needs to be addressed. Ideally, a modular data centre should be built as close to the end user site as possible to reduce transportation impacts. To address this, Schneider Electric utilises key factories in Europe, with global partners in other locations.

Remote monitoring and management: Another key component of sustainability efforts is the ability to monitor and manage the data centre remotely, with advanced software. This means that organisations don’t need to physically send staff to a remote location to address concerns, as they can be handled remotely from a cloud-based, central management console. Remote monitoring capability can also help data centre managers monitor energy efficiency.

End-of-life reuse: Prefabricated modular data centres have a lifecycle of up to twenty years. However, once at end of life, the modules can be taken off-site and the components recycled or disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner. There are also circumstances in which changing business conditions might render a modular data centre expendable. In this case, the data centre could be transported or reused somewhere else.

Supporting sustainable growth in Ireland

Last year Ireland signed the Climate Act into law and the country is now on a legally binding path to reach net zero emissions no later than 2050. Its ambition is to achieve a 51% reduction in emissions by the end of this decade, but in order to reach this milestone, a greater focus on digitisation and electrification will be essential.

Climate change, for example, has been directly attributed to the blistering heat waves being recorded around the globe, and recently Ireland recorded its hottest day in more than a century. To mitigate the sectors’ current and future impact, the challenge of providing adequate power to all parts of an increasingly digital economy is one that requires a coordinated response from all stakeholders including government, energy suppliers, distributors, and consumers of electricity.

At Schneider Electric, we call this vision of a greener, more sustainable future, Electricity 4.0, which means zero waste, zero emissions, and zero carbon. It is our vision for decarbonisation, where energy management is integral in the quest to deliver a green and net zero future.

Amid the energy crisis and amid climate change, for example, the age of fossil fuels is coming to an end, yet 80% of carbon emissions still come from energy, whether that’s from production, consumption, or distribution. If countries across the globe can make progress towards tackling energy waste, they can take significant steps to reduce the impacts of global warming.

What’s clear is that by combining sustainable digital infrastructure with Electricity 4.0, data centres can play a key role in helping Ireland decarbonise its digital economy. Electricity 4.0, for example, can provide a vehicle to improve energy generation, management, and distribution, enabling stakeholders and large-scale energy users across the digital economy to be smarter with the way they use and consume energy.

Furthermore, through a more collaborative approach we can begin to unite key stakeholders across the industry, including governmental bodies such as the CRU, national energy grid operators such as EirGrid, and data centre operators, to deliver a net zero future.

Looking forward this approach will be essential to minimise the environmental impact of data centres, no matter their design or architecture. And through the convergence of digital and electric technologies we can make both data centres, and the energy grids of the future, more efficient, sustainable, and resilient.