Do you know how much electricity is consumed by gigantic data centres powering the Internet? It’s huge when you realise that they emit as much carbon dioxide as the entire airline industry does. The companies that own these data centres need to use clean energy sources and make some dramatic improvements in energy efficiency in order to change this situation.
Today, all your data, movies and emails are stored in the cloud inside hundreds of huge data centres and all those data centres are taking their toll on the earth. In fact, some people like to define data centres as the digital age factories. You can find these featureless and windowless boxes across the globe in places as diverse as Bangalore, Des Moines, Las Vegas and Reykjavik. All these data centres power the digital services that have become a part of the life today all across the world. It is estimated that around $20 billion are spent each year for construction of data centres, including the servers, swl1850 batteries, the buildings themselves and all the storage facilities needed.
The biggest data centre covers more than 1,000,000 ft² and use as much electricity as a city with one million inhabitants. You might be surprised to know that data centres now consume 2% of the electricity generated in the world and their CO2 emissions are as much as the airline industry. What is worrying is that the global data traffic doubles every 4 years which means the need for data centres will keep growing at a fast rate.
Even though there are so many data centres but it’s unlikely that you know even if there is one near you. You have absolutely no idea which data centre powers your Netflix downloads and whether it uses renewable energy and is powered by processors which are cooled by Arctic air or whether it runs on fossil fuel powered electricity or whether it sits in the desert where big but highly inefficient refrigerator banks cool it down.
One of the things we are constantly told is that the economy of the world is dematerialising with means digital data is replacing the physical stuff and this data has close to zero ecological footprint. That’s not true. As per a Greenpeace report published last year, only United States and China will contribute more to climate change if you compare their emissions with the global IT industry as a whole.
Everything in digital space requires use of energy including processing, moving, analysing as well as storing all that data. The fastest processors powering the biggest data centres need a lot of energy that is often delivered by a huge power station with capacity of 1000 MHz or higher. Also, a similar amount of energy is required to prevent the servers and surrounding buildings from frying.
Every single keystroke adds to the energy consumption. As per Google’s estimates, one single query on its search engine requires as much energy as required by a 60 W light bulb to be powered for 17 seconds and leads to emission of 0.2 g of carbon dioxide. These numbers might seem irrelevant but when you start to add billions of searches that are performed every single day, you start to realise the gravity of things.
However, Google isn’t such a big data hog these days. What’s really driving data consumption on the Internet is streaming video. Cisco, the IT giant, tracks these things and they estimate that almost 82% of the Internet traffic will be due to video streaming by 2021. The corresponding number in 2016 was 73%. Consider the fact that in North America, almost 1/3 of the Internet traffic is due to Netflix streaming alone.
These days, IT companies are increasingly promising to move towards 100% renewable or green energy for their operations. In order to achieve these goals, some of the biggest IT companies are investing in their own energy campuses. Switch, the cloud giant that runs 3/10 of the biggest data centres in the world, announced in February, that they plan to build a hub in central Nevada powered by solar. This hub is going to be biggest one outside China.