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Irish government vows to ease planning procedures for datacentre investors

After Apple and Amazon saw their datacentre plans tripped up by the Irish planning system, the government has outlined its commitment to easing the path to construction for other operators

The Irish government has given details of the work it is doing to position Ireland as an ideal location for datacentre investments, without putting undue pressure on the country’s national power grid.

In a policy statement published by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the Irish government says it is taking a “plan-led approach” to supporting the growth of the country’s burgeoning datacentre industry.

The government’s overall aim is to position Ireland as the “location of choice” for organisations looking to tap into the opportunities of the digital economy.

The datacentre community, in particular, has an important role to play in this by supporting regional economic growth through the creation of new jobs and follow-on investment.

According to a recent Grant Thornton study for IDA Ireland – the organisation tasked with drawing overseas investment to the country – the datacentre industry has generated more than €7bn in economic benefit since 2010.

However, the document acknowledges that the continued growth of Ireland’s datacentre industry must be aligned with the country’s overall ability to generate and consume electricity.

“A balance will be maintained between the distributional impacts of higher energy costs on the economy and the longer-term economic impacts of utility-intensive enterprise investment,” the document says.

The statement could be seen as an attempt by the government to acknowledge the concerns of local residents about the power consumption habits of the datacentre industry, and whether or not the country’s grid infrastructure is equipped to cope with the rising demand.

Although not directly referenced in the document, this is an area where Apple ran into problems during its now abandoned, three-year bid to build a datacentre in Athenry, County Galway.  

Apple found itself doing battle with two local objectors, who opposed the build on environmental grounds, and challenged the decision by the local council and independent planning chiefs to give the firm permission to proceed with the project.

In the policy statement, the Irish government said it now taking steps to ensure datacentre operators will benefit from “timely decision-making” within the planning process to prevent other technology firms from encountering similarly lengthy delays.

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This includes amending the planning permission procedures for datacentres that meet certain size thresholds, and reclassifying these builds as “strategic infrastructure developments” so they can be processed in a more streamlined way.

“The government is also reviewing judicial review timelines on planning decisions which will provide greater certainty to investing companies, while emphasising the continuing importance of public and community consultation processes,” the document says.

Heather Humphreys, Irish government minister for business, enterprise and innovation, said the demand for datacentre space in Ireland is there, and the policy document is designed to ensure the country is poised to take advantage of it.

“We all know that datacentres present challenges given that they are very energy-intensive,” she said. “However, they are also critically important to ensuring that Ireland continues to be a leader in the digital economy. This is about striking a balance between the challenges and opportunities.

“While the number of people directly employed in datacentres is relatively small, the fact is there are over 100,000 employed in ICT companies here. The reality is that many of those companies need datacentres to facilitate their activities and continued growth.”

To date, most of Ireland’s datacentre investments have centred on Dublin, but it is important for other parts of the country to reap the benefits too, said Humphreys.

“We need to be strategic about this,” she added. “If companies do want to set up datacentres in Ireland, we need to be selective and target investments that deliver real economic benefits.

“For example, we know that Dublin is under the most pressure in terms of energy capacity. That’s why we need to look at putting datacentres in regional locations that might be under less pressure.”

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