Energy Initiative Blogs

The Digital Era & Energy

by Elizabeth Kocs | Oct 03, 2016

We live in an increasingly digital, connected and information-centric world, not only transforming the way we live and work every day, but also the foundation of our global economic market. 

Shortly, hourly Internet traffic will exceed the Internet’s annual traffic for the year 2000.”[1]

Data centers and server farms, cloud services and e-commerce, Internet of Things (IoT) and sensors, smart cities and autonomous vehicles, and so on serve and support individuals, institutions, organizations, corporations and industry around the globe. Amazon, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and many others rely heavily on server farms to host and operate their cloud-computing services. 

On a daily basis, roughly 3 billion people, businesses, organizations, and governments connect on the Internet by searching, shopping, socializing, transacting, and interacting through computers and mobile devices, is expected to contribute more than $4.1012 to the global GDP in 2016 with an annual growth estimated at 10% per year (faster than the global economy as a whole).[2] The digital economy is projected to have a greater impact in developing countries, where it is expected to grow at an even higher rate (15-25% / year), be a critical source of employment, and enable social and political changes.[3]

These increases in digital data and usage is the reason data centers are “one of the fastest-growing users of electricity in developed countries.”[4]

Energy demands

Data centers use sizeable amounts of power for two main reasons: to run the actual equipment (addressed by designing energy efficient data storage and computing systems) and to cool the equipment.[5]  Data centers have typically been located near concentrations of people and with good fiber network and power grid connectivity. However, global digital companies, such as Google and Facebook, build massive data centers around the world since local management is not needed. Using natural ways to bring down cooling costs of data centers, such as arctic locations, proximity of cold water flows, are getting more popular given cooling is the second main energy usage component of data centers.[6]

In 2015, the Internet and its digital network was estimated to be roughly 3% of the global electricity supply and 2% of global carbon emissions.[7],[8] As the numbers and size of data centers and server farms continue to increase so will their respective energy usage and associated carbon / greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions.[9],[10],[11] Our increasingly digital, connected and information-centric world has an actual and increasingly substantial energy, climate and environmental impact.

A Global Challenge

The burgeoning digital market, with a current carbon footprint similar to the airline industry, may already appear massive, but experts are warning that the energy used by data centers is doubling every four years, despite innovations in data storage technology, and will likely triple the amount of electricity its consumes in the next decade.  This type of growth will put unbearable burden on global power generation systems, even with a complete shift to all renewables, but simultaneously can also offer opportunities for dematerialization and decoupling of economic growth from environmental impact.

[1] M. Mills. The Cloud Begins with Coal, August 2013.

[2] W. Bock, et al., The Infrastructure Needs of the Digital Economy, March 20, 2015.

[4] National Resource Defense Council, America’s Data Centers Are Wasting Huge Amounts of Energy, August 2014.

[5] S. Mittal. "Power management techniques for data centers: A survey." arXiv preprint arXiv:1404.6681, 2014.

[6] Holloway, James. “Fjord-cooled data center in Norway claimed to be world's greenest” GizMag Environment, 2011.

[7] DCD Intelligence, Powering the Data Center, Datacenter Dynamics, April 2013.

[8] Jonathan Koomey, Growth in Data Center Electricity Use 2005 to 2010, Analytics Press, August 2011.

[9] R. Brown et al., Report to Congress on Server and Data Center Energy Efficiency: Public Law 109@431, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 2007.

[10] M. Mills. The Cloud Begins with Coal, August 2013.

[11] Global e-Sustainability Initiative and the Boston Consulting Group, Inc., GeSI SMARTer 2020: The Role of ICT in Driving a Sustainable Future, December 2012.