Energy Hogs: Can World’s Huge Data Centres Be Made More Efficient?

The huge data centres that serve as the driving force for the internet consume a lot of energy and produce as much CO2 as the entire airline industry. To remedy this problem, data organisations have to resort to using green energy sources with the aim of improving their energy efficiency.

From that point of view, it may seem like the cloud is heavily falling back down to Earth. The exquisite place where we upload our data for storage and stream our movies does have a physical presence in the form of hundreds of huge data centres which are now taking a growing toll on the Earth.

Take data centres and comms room services to be like the factories of the digital era. They are usually featureless, windowless boxes that are spread out across the world – from Bangalore to Las Vegas and Reykjavik to Des Moines. They make sure our digital services are always running.

The biggest data centre sits on approximately, 1 million square feet or more and it uses as much electricity as a city populated with over a million people. Data centres in total consume more than 2% of the global electricity and it seems as if that figure will increase, as data traffic worldwide is growing exponentially, doubling every four years.

However, if you live or work near a data centre, high chances are that you’re unaware of its existence. There’s no way of you figuring out which data centre gives you access to your Gmail account, if it runs on coal power or uses renewable energy, or if it sits in the desert heat, cooled by large but ineffective slabs of refrigerators.

We always hear in the news that the global economy is moving into the digital space and that this data has a minimal ecological footprint. That is, however, not the case.

According to a Greenpeace report looking into “the race to build a green internet,” if the worldwide IT industry was a government, only the US and China would contribute towards climate change.

Moving, processing, analysing, and storing data all require a lot of power. The processors used in these centres vibrate with as much energy as can be delivered by a large power station, 1,000MW or more. Bear in mind that it can take nearly the same amount of power to prevent the servers and nearby buildings from overheating and nearly every keystroke adds to this.

As per Google, a simple Google search uses the same amount of power that could light a 60-watt light bulb for 15 seconds. This level of electricity is responsible for producing 0.2 grams of CO2. It may not seem like a lot until you start to think about how many searches you and other millions of people do on annual basis.

These days, Google doesn’t use as much data. Online video streaming is what really racks up the data count. IT company Cisco tracks how people use data and it estimates video will make up over 80% of online traffic by 2021, a significant rise from 73% in 2016. 33% of internet traffic in North America alone is already dedicated to streaming Netflix services.

Many tech companies have made commitments to achieving full reliance on renewable energy with some companies setting up their own energy campuses. For instance, cloud conglomerate Switch announced plans in February for a data hub in central Nevada that will run entirely on solar power and will be the biggest data centre outside China.