A final note… on the hidden costs of technology
The gains in productivity and efficiency from technology are clear to see – but what about the costs associated with the massive boom in tech? With the exponential growth in data collection and use, data centres are at the heart of this matter: the servers, storage equipment, backups and power cooling infrastructure in data centres require electricity – and lots of it. A study of data centres globally found that, data centres accounted for approximately 1% of the global total electricity consumption in 2018– this is more than the national energy consumption of some countries – and they emitted as much CO2 as the commercial airline industry.
Those are scary numbers, but let’s put that into perspective – the same study as before found that while their computing output jumped 6x from 2010 to 2018, their energy consumption only rose 6%. Data generation and usage will grow going forward, but the relationship with energy consumption is not linear, because of a number of important factors:
Efficiency is the name of the game: Processor efficiency has improved, reducing idle power, and increasing storage drive density and slowing server growth.
Hyperscale my data: The shift to cloud computing relies on hyperscale data centres: the largest and most efficient type of data centres run by the likes of Amazon Web Services, Google, Facebook and others. They usually boast the most cutting-edge technology that helps reduce energy costs. The shift from on-premise to large scale data centres has in fact been shown to reduce the workload carbon footprint by 88% for the median surveyed US enterprise data centre.
Tech to the rescue! AI plays a crucial role in reducing the energy used for cooling – Google’s DeepMind AI for example has driven the energy used for cooling at one of Google’s data centres down by 40% in 2016, using only historical data collected from sensors within the data centre.
Location, location, location! Setting up data centres in cold regions helps reduce energy usage by removing the need for cooling equipment altogether. Microsoft is said to be experimenting with innovative technologies such as installing data centres on the seabed.
Renewables: electricity accounts for c.70% of data centres’ total operating costs. As renewables start becoming cost competitive vs. fossil fuel options, tech firms are committing to boosting their renewables exposure. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon were amongst the top 10 largest buyers of renewable energy in the US in 2019.
As ever, rather than seeing them as a threat, data centres arguably present an opportunity to accelerate the sustainable energy transition, because they sit at the nexus of energy efficiency, renewable energy and burgeoning data economy enabled by digitalisation.