Data centres and TVs are hungry for power and growth sees no limit
The world’s digital technology is consuming ten percent of our electricity and more energy than we use to fuel the aviation industry, according to a report.
The combined electrical demand from computers, networks, phones and TVs adds up to 1500 TeraWatt hours per year according to the Digital Power Group – fifty percent more energy than the aviation industry. The figure is higher than previous estimates, thanks to the inclusion of mobile devices and TVs, and the study also makes a disputed claim that an iPhone can use more power than a refrigerator.
More powerful than a jet plane?
The figure has led to calls for greener IT: “Modern mobile users consume data at an alarming rate,” said Peter Hopton, CEO of Iceotope. “It’s not that particular mobile phone models aren’t energy efficient, it’s that we use these devices to access cloud computing services, and this ‘always-on’ IT culture requires huge data farms to be located around the country. Needless to say, these facilities require huge amounts of power to run and, on the most part, can be extremely inefficient.”
But ironically, the report itself is backed by the American coal industry (in the shape of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity), and makes an argument that only fossil fuel can provide the continuous and responsive power generation that IT requires.
The data centre part of the IT energy footprint is normally reckoned to be about two percent of the world’s electricity usage. In the UK, the figure is nearer five percent. The country has a very high population of data centres, which use around 2GW of power, according to a census by DCD Intelligence, while the UK’s average electricity supply is about 35GW.
“Service providers must recognise the impact that this kind of data usage is having on the environment and make sure that the underlying infrastructure is stored in environmentally friendly facilities,” said Hopton, “particularly as savvy, modern consumers could potentially boycott those which aren’t.”
Greening IT may have limited benefits, the report suggests, since demand for digital services can grow without any real limits, unlike use of light, food or transport: “People can only use so many lumens per square foot, eat so much or spend so much time in a car,” said the author Mark Mills, CEO of Digital Power. Turning on a light does not require other lights to go on, he points out, but clicking on a web link can activate a limitless cascade of tech resources in data centres round the globe.
One much-quoted comparison in the report does not stand up to scrutiny, however. Mills claims that an iPhone will use 361kWh per year – but this turns out to assume it will be used to watch an hour of video every week over energy-hungry mobile data networks.
Using Wi-Fi can bring that energy use down a lot. “They have skewed the figures slightly,” conceded an Iceotope spokesperson, before pointing out that this sort of data usage may be the exception now but is increasingly normal. “They’re certainly not basing their figures on situations which are in no way in touch with the real world. Again, the inefficient cellular networks used for their figures is simply a matter of using ‘best’ (or in this case, worst) test conditions.”
Are you a green IT guru? Take our quiz!