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The Battle Over Technology and Energy Consumption

Insatiable demands for data have triggered startling projections on how much electricity is consumed to power the Internet. But technology itself — along with strategic regulations — could keep our energy needs in check.

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Every month, Americans stream over 8 billion hours of content to their digital screens. By 2025, the number of Internet-connected devices is slated to increase to 28 billion from today’s 9.2 billion and the rollout of 5G networks could push an individual mobile user to consume 200 GB of data a month. The amount of numbers, words, images and videos generated by digital technology is increasing exponentially, but it comes at the risk of overwhelming efforts to reduce emissions.
Swedish researcher Anders Andrae’s estimate that information and communication technology could account for more than 20 percent of global energy use by 2025 attracted wide attention. “We have a tsunami of data approaching,” he said. “Everything which can be is being digitalized. It is a perfect storm. 5G is coming … and all cars and machines, robots and artificial intelligence are being digitalized, producing huge amounts of data which is stored in data centers.”

To make a point about what this means for energy use, Fortune noted that when the music video “Despacito” reached an Internet record of 5 billion views on YouTube in April 2018 it had burned as much energy as 40,000 U.S. homes use in a year.

We have all heard that computing is moving to the cloud, which consists of massive facilities for storing and transferring data for thousands of clients at a time. These data centers require enormous quantities of electricity to both power the computers and keep them running cool. A 2016 report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory projected that data centers in the U.S. would consume 73 billion kWh in 2020, about as much as 6.7 million average households.

Despite the startling projections, questions have been raised about how to interpret technology’s future electricity needs. Jonathan Koomey, Ph.D., has been studying energy consumption and technology for more than a quarter of a century. He worked as a scientist and researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for more than two decades and has taught at Stanford, Berkeley and Yale.

“Lots of well-meaning — and not so well-meaning — analysts like to extrapolate digital technology growth rates out into the future to get eye-popping results,” says Koomey. “Almost all projections beyond a few years are nonsense. Also, there’s a tendency among such analysts to choose extreme cases to get attention.”

Smarter Systems

One counterweight to growing energy demand is harnessing computing power itself to make devices and systems “smarter” — cars, homes, grids, meters and cities — to reduce energy use and its footprint. Already, building facility managers are using technology to spot when systems lose efficiency and need attention, or to remotely turn off lights or air conditioning in empty rooms. Internet-connected appliances will be able to communicate with the grid and receive power only when they need it.

A report from the World Wildlife Fund estimated that by 2030 efficiencies from smart devices and systems can potentially reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 8 gigatons, a figure approaching one quarter of total global emissions in 2018. Networked digital systems have the potential to help governments adapt to the impacts of climate change, improving their ability to forecast storms, manage food and water shortages, monitor soil conditions and water quality and more.

At the hardware level, achievements in computing efficiency are the only reason the dramatic growth of the digital data stream hasn’t already brought the power grid to its knees. Swiss scientist Bernard Aebischer estimated that without these developments, by 2015 the entire global supply of energy would have been needed to power the installed base of computers in Switzerland alone.

Moore’s law — the prediction that every two years it will be possible to pack twice as many transistors in the same space — has supported this progress. While this strategy may be reaching its limits, technology innovators still find new ways to drive energy efficiencies through better hardware, software and systems design.

For example, San Jose-based Xilinx has developed hardware to address one of the concerns about 5G networks. “With 5G you have higher frequency, and so you need more power to push the signal or to receive the signal,” says Gilles Garcia, the company’s Wired and Wireless Group business lead director. “We have designed dedicated chips for radio that can reduce the number of chips needed by a factor of five and reduce power consumption by up to 60 percent,” he says. “The same chip can also be used by the cable industry and drive power reduction in new cable infrastructure.”

Governments and industry groups can also use updated versions of traditional regulatory tools such as the International Energy Conservation Code and design standards to exercise control over efficient use of electricity. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers has published an Energy Standard for Data Centers that provides “a framework for the energy efficient design of data centers with special consideration to their unique load requirements compared to other buildings.”

To date, Washington is the only state to adopt the code, but data center industry groups have taken notice. “Feedback has been very positive,” says Rick Zbin, facilities director for Kaiser Permanente and chair of the committee that developed the standard. “A number of major data center stakeholders have decided to add (Energy) Standard 90.4 to their design standards for their companies.”

Zero-Emission Data Centers

Going well beyond efficiency, the largest data center in the U.S. is a zero-emission facility. The Switch Core Campus in Las Vegas is a 3.5 million-square-foot facility that is expanding to 4.6 million square feet. It is powered entirely by renewable energy, as all Switch facilities have been since 2016.

“Switch has emerged as one of the most aggressive data center operators in pushing for the policy changes needed to transition to a renewably powered economy, both from an economic and ecological perspective,” according to Greenpeace in its most recent Click Clean report.

Other major players share this commitment. Google, which describes itself as the “largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world,” has set the goal of sourcing enough renewable energy to match the electricity needed for all of its global operations, including data centers. Apple announced in 2018 that not only its data centers, but all its facilities worldwide are now powered by renewable energy.

While clean energy could eventually save the day, it’s not certain when that day might arrive. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that by 2050, renewables would account for 31 percent of U.S. energy generation, and half of worldwide electricity production. A number of government and private-sector leaders have set their sights much higher, with the goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by this date. The right mix of political will and economics could speed their progress.

Electricity from wind and sun is already cheaper than from coal-powered plants, and is becoming cost-competitive with power from natural gas. Telecoms and data centers will gravitate toward purchasing or generating green power whenever possible, even if climate is not a core corporate concern. Similarly, the drive to cut costs will create a preference for more efficient technology as it has in other sectors.

Incentives for energy-saving equipment from both utilities and government have also played a role in spurring development and implementation of energy efficient technologies, from air conditioning to computers, as have sustainable purchasing guidelines and energy codes.

Given all this, and the potential for smart devices to help us make better decisions about energy conservation (often by taking them out of our hands), vigilance may be more appropriate than alarm. After years of study and research, Jon Koomey is sanguine about what lies ahead. “[Digital technology] electricity use is modest and, in my opinion, a pretty high-value use of that modest amount of electricity.”

In regard to the net climate impact of communications technology, the message conveyed by former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to a gathering of world leaders from government, technology companies and international agencies was unequivocal. “Indeed, [digital technologies] are part of the solution,” he said. “Already these technologies are being used to cut emissions and help countries adapt to the effects of climate change.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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