Apple Data Centre Athenry: The proposal by Apple to construct a data centre near Athenry, Co. Galway has received much media attention of late. The recent decision by An Bord Pleanála to grant planning permission has been subsequently challenged by third parties opposed to the project. Invariably this legal challenge will delay the delivery of the project. These events are in stark contrast to a sister proposal by Apple to construct a similar data centre in Viborg Denmark which though announced by Apple at the same time as the Athenry project, is now under construction. Clearly this has placed the Irish Planning System in the cross-hairs of opinion with the suggestion that it is our landuse planning system that is at fault. Is this criticism well founded? Let’s look at the evidence.
Like Ireland, Denmark have a plan-led system where land and property is identified (zoned) for specific development purposes and it is those purposes that influence development and locational decisions. The plan-led system seeks to balance the promotion of economic development through the identification of the most suitable sites for development thereby enabling effective and efficient use of land and resources, creating opportunities for commercial synergies, and protection of the natural environment where appropriate.
In Athenry, the Apple site is proposed within a rural area in excess of 4km from the town. There are no other similar or complementary uses within the vicinity, there is no direct access to the national electrical supply grid and, there is no other infrastructure systems serving the site for development purposes. Access to the national grid can only be provided by a parallel proposal to construct an electrical sub-station next to the project. The site does not benefit from any landuse zoning objectives that promote, encourage or suggest its suitability for datacentre uses, or any other commercial, business or industrial activity. In contrast, there are currently other sites (including those within the actual town of Athenry and between the regional cities of Galway and Limerick) which are appropriately sized and that have been appropriately identified by planning zoning to accommodate indigenous development, enterprises and foreign direct investment suitable for datacentres. Those appropriately zoned locations are also accessible to the national electricity supply grid. The legal challenge to the Athenry proposal includes the argument that the location and site selection for the datacentre is inconsistent with our adopted plan-led system.
So how did the Danes deal with this issue so quickly? Well, it would appear that the planning and site location circumstances of the Viborg site, are markedly different from Athenry. The datacentre in Viborg whilst situated some 4km outside of the town, is being constructed on lands which are specifically identified and zoned for development (‘business/industrial area’) and benefit from services and proximity of compatible activities. An established research and development department of Aarhus University is positioned immediately beside the Viborg site, whilst an existing electrical supply substation is situated on the other side- providing direct access to the electrical grid. The mix of existing and complementary landuse activities, the appropriateness of the landuse zoning, and the proximity to the existing electrical supply infrastructure clearly suggest the suitability of the Viborg site.
In addition, it is reported in Danish press that Apple entered into multi-year clean energy deal with Aarhus University on a new biogas research and development project and a 20 million kroner (€2.7 million) grant to the university.
Clearly therefore, there is little in similarity in planning circumstances between the datacentres proposed in Athenry and Denmark. On the face of it, it is difficult to argue the unsuitability of the Viborg location for a datacentre, whilst the challenge to the Athenry proposal would appear to be an effort to maintain the credibility of our adopted plan-led system in the delivery of balanced and sustainable economic development and, the efficient use of natural resources.
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