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Data ‘tsunami’ to absorb 20% of world electricity

News Analysis
Dec 14, 20173 mins
Big DataData CenterTechnology Industry

Unprecedented data traffic growth, along with global emissions from data centers, will impede attempts to rein in climate change, say experts.

code wave tsunami
Credit: Thinkstock

It’s the “Dirty Cloud,” says journalist John Vidal in a recent tweet. Vidal is referring to energy use by data centers, which he wrote about in an article for Climate Home News.

In the story, published this week, the Guardian environment writer reveals a bleak picture of future global climate change emissions. Bleak, in part, because the discouraging projections he writes of are caused not by, as one might expect, fossil fuel power plants and internal combustion engine users, but by communications and data center power use.

Vidal says he’s privy to upcoming research that claims the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector could create up to 3.5 percent of global emissions by 2020 (more than aviation and shipping verticals) and up to 14 percent by 2040 (the same as the entire U.S., as a country, produces today).

Those numbers will hinder climate change targets, he believes.

Additionally, the communications technology share of global electricity usage could be up to 20 percent by 2025, Vidal says. He’s quoting Huawei Technologies’ Anders S.G. Andrae, an academic who studies communications power use.

The proportion is currently about 8 percent.

Today’s energy saving estimations could be wrong

Andrae, writing in a paper presented at the Nordic Digital Business Summit in October, says there has been an overestimation of possible power saving that could be achieved in the next decade, among other problems.

Part of the issue is that we don’t really “know how and which devices will be used in the future,” he explains in the presentation. “Exact use patterns and numbers,” as are used in projections now, on the whole don’t portray trends, which means the existing, optimistic energy saving numbers may ultimately turn out to be wrong.

There are also fundamental conflicts in tech overall, he says. In wireless mobile, for example, “cost, bandwidth efficiency and energy efficiency” are incompatible with one another. He means that you don’t gain range benefits while lowering power use, for example. That means power use overall has to go up.

Global electricity use is indeed rising across the board. But it isn’t just the sending of data or the cooling of data centers that increases electricity use. Entire lifecycles must be taken into account. In other words, manufacturing contributes: The production of all the stuff, such as robots, smart home devices, wearables and augmented reality/virtual reality gadgets will increase electricity use. So will data center hardware and network hardware production — they’re all accelerating ICT electricity use.

Data centers alone will make up 4.5 percent of global electricity use by 2025, Andrae says.

Silver lining: power-saving technology

There is one silver lining, though, and that is that consumer device electricity usage will decline, Andrae predicts. Traditionally it has been processing and displays that have been the power hogs, but power-saving architecture and management technology that’s being introduced will improve consumer client-level power usage.

The phasing out of copper wiring will also produce significant energy saving efficiencies. One problem with that, though, is that it “won’t mitigate traffic growth,” Andrae says. That’s because the benefits of copper replacement have already been counted in.

“The situation is alarming,” Andrae told Vidal. “We have a tsunami of data approaching.”


Patrick Nelson was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Patrick Nelson and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.