APTP Articles

By 2025 the IT Industry could use 20% of all Electricity Produced – How can we make it sustainable?

* 4.6 billion people use the internet every day.
* Internet servers require a huge amount of energy in order to operate.
* Renewable energy could be the key to achieving internet sustainability.

Around 4.6 billion people use the internet every day. In fact, 350,000 tweets have been sent in the past minute. We tend to think of the internet as something ephemeral – partly thanks to terms like “web” and “cloud” – but the servers that host all that data produce huge amounts of emissions, leaving giant carbon footprints behind.

Today, there are around 30 billion internet-connected devices in the world. This includes personal computers, smartphones, TVs, and tablets, as well as myriad devices using the internet in subtler ways – like smart vehicles, smart home systems and smart watches – termed the Internet of Things.

Such internet-connected technologies are already playing a key role in the transition to a cleaner energy future; for example, home smart meters being rolled out across many countries help monitor and therefore reduce household energy usage. But as we rely on the internet to process, use and store ever more data, the power it uses is increasing. For the sake of our planet, we need to make the web more sustainable.

Energy-sucking servers

Research estimates that by 2025, the IT industry could use 20% of all electricity produced and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions. That’s more than most countries’ total emissions bar China, India and the US.

A growing proportion of IT energy consumption comes from data centres. These are buildings used to store data and computer hardware, which almost always plug directly into the local electricity grid. In most countries, that means they mostly use non-renewable sources of electricity.

Internet servers require constant power in order to keep running. Image: Science in HD/Unsplash

Around 50% of data centres are now “hyperscale”, meaning they contain more than 5,000 servers and are generally larger than 1,000m². These are typically used by major players in the data industry such as Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud or Amazon Web Services (AWS) – which alone hosts 5.8% of all sites on the internet.

A number of these data centres have been trying to reduce their environmental impact and, in the process, to secure lower energy bills. Google have announced their goal to achieve 24/7 renewable energy-powered data centres by 2030, and their first such data centre became operational last year near Las Vegas. To run such centres solely off renewable energy, locating them in regions with abundant wind, solar, geothermal or hydroelectric power available is vital.

About the Author

Jeff Kettle

By Jeff Kettle – Lecturer in Electronic Engineering at Bangor University