Data Centres: Shades of Green Enablement
Thu 17 Sep 2020 | Derek Webster
Do data centres & ICT stand in the way of global environmental goals, or are they already enabling our green future? Derek Webster says it’s time to look at the facts
“When I went to school, I had books and access to a library. My children went to school with laptops and access to the Internet”, is a favourite line I use as often as I can to demonstrate the effect of the ‘Digital Revolution’.
In 1989, when the World Wide Web was given free to the world, the global population was 5.2bn and annual global fossil CO2 emission stood at 22.3 gigatonnes. 30 years later, with the internet covering almost every inch of the globe, 7.7bn of us live on Earth and global emissions stand at 33 gigatonnes.
Even though these are significant and startling rises of 48% and 35% respectively (2017 & 2018 saw sharp CO2 declines according to the IEA), taken together they illustrate a 10% per capita CO2 reduction over that period – and carbon dioxide accounts for 65% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. When dissecting the impact of the Digital Revolution on the environment, population, energy source and use are key.
As I explored in a previous article, digitalisation is transforming the value chain with increased efficiency, productivity, quality and competitiveness. But the digital revolution has also affected social, economic and behavioural changes, with significant carbon, environmental and sustainability impacts.
ICT has also revolutionised the collecting and processing of green data, helping us understand the changing world we live in. Conversely, information about how much ICT & digitisation growth has helped, in part, off-set our carbon use, is rare. This article will not answer that macro question. But it will provide insight in terms of global CO2 usage, while acknowledging that 38% of the world’s population are not internet users (as of June 2020).
Digital infrastructure and particularly data centres are often compared to the aviation industry. Aircraft reach actual clouds while data centres are ‘the cloud on the ground’; where the silk threads of the web – fibre and connectivity – connect.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that aviation is responsible for about 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change (change caused by human activity). Airline pollution, including CO2 and water vapour at high-altitude, impacts global warming more than pollution on the ground.
As a comparable, according to the International Energy Agency, data centres consumed less than 1% of global electricity demand in 2019 and, as of 2018, were responsible for 0.3% of global carbon emissions. In 2019, data transmission networks were responsible for circa 1% of energy consumed globally.
Even though digital workloads have increased 550% since 2010, power demand has levelled in the last 6 years. Aviation on the other hand saw a 21% rise in CO2 over the last 4 years to 2018, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Other sources show a similar picture. Global e-sustainability (GeSI) stated that the ICT sector was responsible for 2.3% of emissions in 2020. The GeSI figure in 2015 was 1.4-2%.
The aviation industry represents around 3.6% of global GDP. The digital economy is 22.5% of global GDP according to Oxford Economics, while the UNCTAG 2019 report states that the Digital Economy ranges from 4.5% to 15.5% as a proportion of countries’ GDPs.
Is digital infrastructure and aviation a fair comparison?
As data centre facilities leverage more efficient infrastructure and source power from increasingly greener energy sources, we are seeing a greener Hyperscale Energy Shift: In 2014, approximate data centre energy usage was as follows – traditional data centres 55%, cloud-based 30%, and hyperscale data centres 15%. In 2018, from 200TWh global usage, traditional data centres were responsible for 20% of the energy used, cloud-based 35%, and hyperscale data centres 45%.
This trend is significant: In 2016, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL-1005775) estimated that if 80% of US servers in smaller data centres migrated into hyperscale facilities, energy usage falls by 25 percent. Another fact often overlooked is that the technology and communications sectors dominate corporate agreements to purchase renewable electricity.
It’s a critical time for critical infrastructure. The global economy is set to shrink by 6% with 20% fewer energy investments due to the unfortunate global Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, we are seeing some interesting changes to digital infrastructure usage.
A new study by Website Builder Expert noted that internet usage is up 70%, with online streaming showing an 85% increase. According to Nokia, aggregated data volumes are 25% above pre-Covid levels, Vodafone has seen voice & data demand surge by 50%.
How have these rises impacted electricity and carbon emissions? The GSM Association (which represents 750 mobile telecom operators) provided the following commentary:
- Telefonica in Spain has seen 35% data increases without significant electricity/carbon emissions.
- Telia Nordic & Baltics have seen 20% increase in traffic with 1% more electricity use from its 90% renewable energy (100% expected in 2020)
- British Telecom (BT) in the UK has seen 100% increase in daytime broadband for the same energy use from its 92% renewable energy
- London telecom networks have seen energy consumption and carbon use mostly unchanged
Covid-19 has shown us that existing digital infrastructure has the inherent capacity to change how we work while making us more reliant on ICT (and thus increasing its criticality). In March 2020, CO2 in New York fell by 10% and in Paris by an incredible 72%. New York researchers told the BBC that early results have shown carbon monoxide mainly from cars was down 50% compared to 2019 levels.
The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology stated that in some British cities’ pollution was down 60% during lockdown. 87% of UK citizens currently working from home said they would like to continue to do so ‘to some degree’. Should that happen that represents 17m people continuing with remote or some form of flexible working. The numbers are still to be collected and crunched, but indications suggest a more flexible working lifestyle with reduced commutes and lower office occupations might be one feature of “the new normal”.
ICT at the core of the Green agenda
GeSI states that ICT can reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 20% versus a ‘no change’ approach by 2030 (equivalent to holding emissions to 2015 levels), providing $11tn in new economic and social benefits and an estimated 30% increase in agriculture yields for less water.
GeSI also predicts that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will reduce GHG by 4% in 2030 — the combined emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan. Google already uses AI to reduce data centre energy by 15%, with a 6% reduction in cooling.
Indeed, GeSI has been vocal for some time about how digital technologies can dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions and global warming potential (GWP). In the future, they predict transformative reductions thanks to digitalisation.
Impact on CO2 emissions (tonnes)
- E-commerce: -1bn
- Virtual meetings and remote working: -0.5bn
- Smart grid: -2bn
- Smart motors: -0.97bn
- Smart buildings: -1.7bn
- Transportation: -1.52bn
These findings are echoed by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which states that digital technology can cut global emissions by 15%. Adding that connectivity will be a key enabler, through solutions in energy, manufacturing, agriculture and land use, buildings, services, transportation (21% of current emissions) and traffic management. WEF also sights 5G as the next ‘exponential’ technology, with data speeds 10 to 100 times faster than 4G, all while consuming less energy (around 90 percent less energy per/bit than 4G.)
More about those data centres:
The cloud on the ground is seeing organisations increasingly move workloads from less efficient on-premises data centres to more efficient colocation and cloud data centres in more sustainable locations for operations.
Corporate board rooms are turning greener to combat climate change and take responsibility while increasing brand value. The data centre sector has consistently exhibited self-regulating continual improvements in regards to best practice and energy; The European Code of Conduct (ECoC), the standard EN 50600 series (information technology – data centre facilities and infrastructure) are good examples and great resources to abide by.
Another is ‘The Open Compute Project’ (OCP) / Foundation, a data centre industry collective in part ‘reimagining compute hardware, making it more efficient, flexible and scalable’. We are now at the server and rack level. OCP shows how you can obtain more efficient, focused equipment for less. For example, on average 1 OCP Hyperscaler server (not limited to Hyperscaler use) could replace 3.75 servers in a conventional data centre.
Facebook claims OCP kit has saved them $1.2bn in its first 3 years and Microsoft runs over 90% of their hardware as OCP. OCP has a project called OCP TIP (Telco Infra Project), which in 2018 saved enough energy to power 80,000 homes per annum, with carbon reductions of about 400,000 metric tons, which is the equivalent of taking 95,000 cars off the road per year, according to Facebook.
We have seen that around 50% of data centre energy use comes from the Hyperscalers. Here’s how some are doing.
- Google (5.5GW renewable energy): In 2017 announced 100% renewable energy across its data centres and operations. 40% of this is via renewable energy power purchase agreements. Google claims that all data processed via Google Cloud has zero net carbon emissions. Some data centres still use fossil fuels yet are off-set via Renewable Energy Credits (REC), these are in essence a token that represents a green energy generation utility. Google is the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy.
- Microsoft Azure (1.9GW renewable energy): Microsoft claims its data centres have been using 100% reusable energy since 2014, 60% renewable the remaining in REC. It has invested in multiple hydropower purchase agreements.
- Amazon Web Services (1.6GW renewable energy). Amazon (2018) announced 50% renewable energy use with remaining REC. in 2019 Greenpeace reported that Amazon has abandoned its 100% commitment by expanding operations by 59% without renewable energy. Amazon states 100% renewable is still its ambition.
There is also an increasing number of data centre projects reusing waste energy or heat. The Nordic region, in particular, has existing infrastructure, making reuse of energy into CHP systems more easily accessible.
An example of ‘Combined Data & Heat (CDH) is Yandex’s project in Mäntsälä, Finland. Yandex, the world’s 5th largest search engine, supplies hot water from its data centre to Mäntsälä City, assisting the reduction of the city’s CO2 emissions by up to 40%. The estimated reduction in heating costs for residents is 5% and the project has reduced utilities’ provision of gas consumption by half. The collaboration with the city allows Yandex to cut data centre electricity expenditure by up to a third.
Future tech on the horizon
Currently we are reaching the limit to how far we can go with silicon and the issue of heat generation at the chip. “We’re up against the limits of shrinkage,” says Jonathan Koomey, a California-based IT consultant. Achieving comparable efficiency gains will require a revolution in how hardware is built and computing is done. “It’s basically impossible to predict,” he says.
‘What if’ is a great question, period! Yet ‘what if’ you could perform per Watt 100x or 1,000x more for 10x or 100x less energy and nearly zero heat generation from CPU activity? What if you could store all of the world’s data in the volume of a candy bar, maybe even in glass for 10,000 years?
We need not look any further than Photonic Computer/CPU, Carbon Nanotubes/CPU and DNA Storage. All three are existing and proven, yet that is not the same as ready to market for widespread adoption. These are potentially game-changing innovations and vastly reduce the predominant and majority user of data centre energy – the ‘servers’ – and all but eliminate bulk cooling requirements.
Green capacity of change
Climate change is a reality and the evidence of anthropogenic climate change is unequivocal and overwhelming. We have seen in this article that ICT, data centres and digital infrastructure have a solid platform to drive carbon reduction while showing investment opportunities and the ability to be part of a sustainable solution.
From its 2.3% emissions, the sectors can drive a 10x multiple (circa 20%) carbon reduction by 2030. There is also a growing belief that, at a macro perspective, large ICT implementations have a few years of lag before positive effects of lower CO2 emissions.
It is the responsibility of governments and enterprises to help secure a sustainable future and take responsible action through leadership, insight, decisiveness and innovation towards the best possible future. Today it is Population, Energy source and Use that are key, from here on we need to add Deliverable Integrated Infrastructure Driving Change. Yes, ICT and data centres are very much part of that realm.