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Upset in Athenry: Examining the impact of Apple's delayed Irish datacentre build

Apple is set to hear at the end of this month whether its much-delayed Irish datacentre build can go ahead. Computer Weekly examines the ins and outs of this complex case

Ireland has emerged as an accommodating host to many of the global hyperscale community’s major players in recent years, with the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft collectively investing billions of pounds in building datacentres on the island.

The country’s congenial corporate tax regime, and the ongoing efforts of the Irish government to court foreign investment, have each played their part in luring these companies to the Emerald Isle, as they all strive to meet growing user demand for locally hosted cloud services.

Compared to London and the South East, the lower cost associated with acquiring land in Ireland is often listed as being a draw for overseas operators scouting out new European sites, while the country’s temperate climate is another tick in the box for cost-conscious datacentre operators.

While the island might meet the necessary economic and climatic conditions needed to encourage these large-scale datacentre operators to set up shop, they still need to secure planning permission for their builds to go ahead.

Some may consider that to be nothing more than a formality, but there are numerous examples in the Computer Weekly news archives of major, high-profile datacentre operators whose construction plans have fallen foul of the Irish planning system.

All these stories pale in comparison, though, to the planning issues and delays Apple has come up against since making known its intentions to build a €850m datacentre in the town of Athenry, County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, in February 2015.

Having secured conditional planning permission from Galway County Council for the first phase of the datacentre in September 2015, a “valid appeal” against the project was raised (and later rejected) by the independent Irish planning body, An Bord Pleanála (ABP).

A couple of local objectors to the project moved to contest the ABP ruling by means of judicial review; the result of which is expected, after several false starts, to be made public by the Irish commercial court on Thursday 27 July 2017.

To put into context the impact all these disputes and reviews have had on the development, Apple broke news of the Athenry project on the same day it outlined plans to build a similar facility in Denmark, two-and-a-half years ago.

The Denmark facility is reportedly on the cusp of completion, while Apple is yet to make any significant progress on its plans to build a 24,500m2 datacentre (and accompanying 220kv power station) in Athenry’s Derrydonnell Forest.

Conscientious objectors

“We visit the United States a lot, and the first question we often get is, ‘Why are all these datacentres going to Ireland?’. And the second question is always, ‘Why are you blocking Apple?’. That’s the perception,” says David McAuley, an advisory council member of Host In Ireland, an organisation that champions the country as good place for overseas cloud firms to do business.

It’s a valid question. When so many other major tech firms have had their datacentre planning applications greeted with minimal opposition, in comparison, why has Apple found its plans kicked into the long grass?

The answer can be traced back, in part, to the numerous opportunities and rights the Irish planning permission process affords residents who wish to raise objections to developments of any kind, not just datacentres, says McAuley.

“The Apple thing has caught people unaware, but I could go through the same length of time trying to build a little extension on my house. It is the process we have in place to ensure these things are conducted in a fair and open manner,” he says.

The objectors are well within their rights to contest the build, and are clearly exploring every avenue the planning system offers them to do this, he says. 

In the Apple case, there are two individuals – Allan Daly and Sinead Fitzpatrick – pursuing the judicial review against ABP, who are understood to live locally. Fitzpatrick works as a solicitor, and Daly’s background is thought to be in environmental engineering.

Computer Weekly invited both parties to take part in an interview, in the hope of gleaning a little more detail about the nature of their objections to the build and the motivation behind them, but received no response from either. Similarly, attempts to solicit a response from Apple about the case were also met with silence.

Apple vs the objectors

Both Daly and Fitzpatrick are also named alongside a dozen or so individuals and third-party organisations as objectors in the ABP review into Galway County Council’s decision to approve the project.

This process saw representatives from Apple, and the third-party contractors it employs, directly address a multitude of concerns raised by the objectors during a week-long oral hearing in May 2016.

Transcripts from the discussions provide a degree of insight into the objections of Daly and Fitzpatrick, which centre predominantly on the environmental impact the project could potentially have on the local area. There are concerns raised about the potential affect of the build on the country’s carbon emissions, given the large amounts of power datacentres typically consume.

These concerns are batted away in the transcripts by Apple’s representatives, who claim the project will make a negligible contribution to the country’s CO2 contributions because the site will be powered exclusively by renewable energy.  

The plausibility of Apple’s 100% renewable power pledge has also been picked apart by the objectors, prompting the company to reveal details – during the oral hearing – of a contract it has signed with Irish renewable energy provider, Vayu, to power the site.

The objectors have also raised red flags about how Eirgrid, Ireland’s version of the National Grid, will be able to cope with the volume of electricity Apple will need to power its datacentre.

This point was addressed by Fredrick Freeman, programme manager for Apple’s Global Energy Team, during the ABP oral hearing, where he outlined a commitment made by the company to supply the Irish National Grid with the same amount of renewable energy as its datacentres consume.

Location, location, location

The site chosen by Apple has raised eyebrows among objectors, who claim the forest lacks the supporting infrastructure needed – from both a power and accessibility perspective – to make it a suitable location for a datacentre.

Orla Feeney is a member of the 18-strong Concerned Residents of Lisheenkyle Group (CRLG), who are are among the appelants listed in the oral hearing documents.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, she spoke of her concerns about the suitability of the site, and queried how Apple’s decision to plonk a datacentre in the middle of a quiet, rural, forested location squares with its environmental pledges.

“There is no justification for handing over a 500-acre rural forest for this kind of project,” she says. “Apple came into the town and claimed it was going to be the greenest datacentre yet, but it can’t be that green because, if it was, it wouldn’t be planning to clear acres of forest to make way for this project.”

Computer Weekly understands Apple has made a commitment to “enhance” the biodiversity of the area, as part of the build, through afforestation and the establishment of a woodland buffer zone around the perimeter of the site.

Conversely, Host in Ireland’s McAuley claims the Derrydonnell location is a natural fit for what Apple has planned, particularly when it comes to meeting its renewable energy targets.

“The west of Ireland has an abundant supply of renewable energy, mainly in the form of wind, which presents a challenge to the grid because we use pretty much all of it in the east of Ireland,” he says, which – incidentally – is where the bulk of the country’s hyperscale datacentres can be found.

“We’ve always got this challenge where we have to move the energy from the west coast to the east coast and that requires infrastructure investment,” McAuley continues.

“By locating a large energy user in the west of Ireland, which is interested in procuring renewable energy, a lot of that is taken care of, and is probably a big reason why Apple has favoured Athenry over other parts of the country.”

From a transport links perspective, Athenry has more going for it than the objectors seem to give the location credit for, given the datacentre will be run, operated and managed by a single tenant, he adds.

“If I’m selling colocation space, I need to be able to tell the end customers that it’s easy for them to get to when they step off the plane at Dublin Airport,” he says.

Next-stage datacentre development

Apple has only sought planning permission for one data hall so far, but has set out plans to build seven more – over the course of the next 10 to 15 years – that will be supported by 144 diesel backup generators.

The first phase of the project will see 18 generators installed on-site, which Daly (and his fellow objectors) claim could have a detrimental effect on noise levels and air quality in the surrounding area.

Vincent Kelly, who runs a farm on land adjacent to the proposed development site, aired concerns along these lines during the ABP review.

“Our concerns are on the dramatic changes this scale of development will bring to our rural community and the possible health risks of having a 220kV power station and 144 large-scale diesel-powered generators adjacent to the play area of our local primary school,” he tells Computer Weekly.

Apple did address this point during the oral hearing in May 2016, explaining that – in the “unlikely event” that all 144 generators would be running at once – the amount of noise generated would still be within the permissible limits set out by the Environmental Protection Agency.

From an emissions perspective, Andrew Donoghue, European research manager for datacentre technologies at analyst house 451 Research, told Computer Weekly in February 2017 that diesel generators – when used as intended – create very little air pollution.

“They’re typically tested and, if they have to be used in anger, they do not usually have to run very long because the grid should be back up before too long,” he says. “The actual impact from diesel emissions – compared to other sources of diesel emissions – is pretty minimal.”

Community support

It would be wrong to assume the objectors, and their apparent dislike for what Apple is trying to do in Athenry, reflects the entire community’s thoughts on the project, argues John Moylan, a director at one of the town’s largest local employers, SIP Energy.

“Athenry has been starved of inward investment for a long time, and resistance to the Apple project is not reflected in the wider community – quite the opposite,” he tells Computer Weekly.

Indeed, large swathes of the Athenry community are keen to see Apple granted permission to proceed with the project, and have banded together to show their support for the project through the creation of the Athenry for Apple Facebook page.

To get a feel for the strength of positive feeling many in the community have about the project, one only has to glance over the hundreds of posts the 3,700-plus members have published in recent months.

The group also staged a public demonstration in November 2016 to highlight the huge amount of support there is for the development within the local community, which feels it would be a big benefit to the town’s economy.

“If you put this datacentre outside the outskirts of a major city, like Dublin, where a million people live, the impact would not be felt at all,” Athenry for Apple founder, Paul Keane, tells Computer Weekly.

According to evidence supplied to ABP during the oral hearing, the project is expected to create a maximum of 420 construction jobs during the build phases of both the datacentre and its accompanying power station.

Job opportunities for local communities

Citing figures from IDA Ireland, a body tasked with attracting foreign investment into the country, and the Washington Research Council, the hearing also heard how datacentre builds open up additional, indirect job opportunities elsewhere in local communities.

As such, the hearing was told that every permanent job a datacentre development provides can lead to the creation of anywhere between 0.7 and 1.54 additional off-site jobs in the local economy. 

The objectors, however, have long argued the point that Apple’s investment will bring negligible, long-term economic benefits to the town because datacentres require relatively few people on-site once the initial construction is complete.

For a town the size of Athenry, whose population is – according to 2011 census data – around the 3,950 mark, the creation of a small number of jobs could have a transformative impact on its residents and the economy at large, says Keane.

“As a direct employer, datacentres provide a small number of jobs, but it stands to have a very big impact elsewhere in the town.”

An increase in local trade

To back this point, Joanne Melia Costello, who runs the Fields of Athenry Gift Shop in the town, points to the increase in trade the local shops and hotels are likely to see during the construction phase.

“It will bring a lot of money into the town, which is badly needed. The business community in the town is pushing for Apple to come to Athenry,” she tells Computer Weekly. “It would be detrimental to the local community if it doesn’t go ahead. We need businesses to come into the town and we need to improve our town.

“People are very anxious, and we’re very cross that we’re being afforded this opportunity and two people [Daly and Fitzpatrick] are pulling the blanket out from under us all,” she adds.

Moylan makes the point that opening the door to a high-profile company like Apple may cause other high-tech firms to consider setting up in Athenry too.

“The issue is not whether Apple hires 50 or 500 people; it is about whether this town and the wider community’s future prospects should be to be held hostage by a small group of individuals,” he says. 

“Apple getting the go-ahead here would at least open the door to other inward-looking companies, and maybe it is those that will create a greater number of opportunities now, and for our children’s future.   

“If the datacentre build falters on this, then the likelihood is that other companies may just decide Athenry is just too much trouble, and will set up somewhere else instead,” he adds.

Hanging in the balance

For Apple, as well as its supporters and objectors, the day of the judicial review court hearing cannot come quickly enough, as everyone with a vested interest in the project has spent the past two years in limbo.

Computer Weekly understands the outcome of the judicial review could go one of five ways, with Apple and its supporters no doubt hoping the judge awards outright approval for the plans.

The remaining options could see the court reject Apple’s plans outright, conditionally approve them, or even refer the case back to Irish planning officials for further review.

There is a fear, in the supportive corners of the local community, that any further delays to the project could prompt Apple to shelve the idea of building a datacentre in the west of Ireland completely.

McAuley fears this could, in turn, have major ramifications for Ireland and its burgeoning position as Europe’s next major cloud datacentre hub.

“Apple has been the unfortunate victim in all this, because it would have done everything by the book and it would be the gold standard in how you design datatacentres,” he says.

“If [Apple’s] having difficulties, you can be sure everyone else involved in planning datacentres is making sure they don’t get tripped up themselves, but it will be a shame if it has to pull out of the project.”

Potential embarrassment for the community

If that is the way the judgement is headed, there are fears in the local community about how the rest of Ireland – not to mention the world – will view Athenry in the years to come, with both Costello and Keane expressing embarrassment at how long the situation has dragged on for.

“It is embarrassing that the process has taken this long and two people have been able to hold it up for the vast majority of the locality,” says Keane.

“If Apple going ahead does cause problems, we will be able to work through them as neighbours do in the locality, but – if it doesn’t go ahead – it will be absolutely detrimental from a national point of view.”

CRLG’s Feeney is less concerned about the national view of things, restating concerns about the damage she claims the project stands to do to the local community should it go ahead.

“I had a lot of sleepless nights about the whole thing because of the fear of what’s going in there, and this goes for the everyone living around it,” she says. “All the extra pylons, the substation and diesel generators. Who is going to help me and my children cope with all the noise and after-effects,” she says.

Unanswered questions

Kelly and the rest of the objectors say there are still too many unanswered questions, and information being shared about how big an impact the project – should Apple pursue its bid to build eight data halls on the site over the next decade and a half – will have on the community in the long term.

“After going through a planning process, an appeal process and an oral hearing, we still do not know the full extent of the impact of this development on our family and our community. There lies the problem,” says Kelly.

“The absence of a full Environmental Impact Statement on the entire development of eight data halls, 144 diesel-powered generators, a 220kV power substation, a 10-year construction phase and their cumulative effect – I believe this to be the single greatest factor in creating uncertainty in the local community, which has led to the delay in the development.”

Read more about datacentre planning permission issues

This was last published in July 2017

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