The internet is powered (supported) by massive data centres that consume significant electricity volumes and generate CO2 emissions at the same level as those of the airline industry. The push for doing better has seen data companies research clean energy sources that will improve energy efficiency.
The cloud – an ethereal place for storing our data – has a physical location. It means the movies we stream, the emails, and documents we store online are store somewhere. It is a place made up of hundreds of giant data centres whose existence is taking a toll on the planet.
While these data centres might be the foundation on which the digital age stands, they are featureless, windowless structures scattered around the world from Des Moines to Bangalore and Reykjavik to Las Vegas. They are the hubs that run our digital services, and with a construction and maintenance cost, that is a whopping $20 billion annually worldwide. This includes even small things like batteries from a UPS shop and the like.
The biggest data centre sits on a million square feet and is a power-hungry entity that takes up electricity that a city of a million people uses. As such, all the data centres in the world gobble up more than 2% of the planet’s electricity and generate CO2 equal to that of the airline industry collectively.
With the global data traffic growing in double digits every four years, these data hubs have to grow and keep up with the demand. That means you probably are aware of that data centre near you. But you are unlikely to know which one delivers your Netflix or YouTube, or if it runs on renewable energy using Arctic-Air-cooled processors. Perhaps it is a centre sitting in the desert heat that runs on coal power and depends on massive yet inefficient refrigerator banks for cooling.
The world’s economy is dematerialising, a situation that has digital data replacing the physical analogue stuff. And the data has an insignificant ecological footprint. However, if the world’s IT sector were a country, then the United States or China would be the leading contributors to climate change; according to last year’s report from Greenpeace researching the impact of the push for building a “Green Internet.”
Data processing, analysis, moving and storing require massive energy amounts. The data centres have huge processors that hum with a power that a large power station can deliver – in the range of 1,000 megawatts or more. Therefore, maintaining the servers and surrounding buildings to keep them from overheating also has a similar energy demand.
Google is “data-lite.” According to Google, a typical online search using its services demands enough power to illuminate a 60-watt bulb for roughly 17 seconds. Moreover, the same action generates around 0.2 grams of CO2. Such figures might seem insignificant, but the impact is immense, especially when you consider the millions of searches that are run each month.
Video streaming is the leading feature racking up the online data count. According to Cisco, an IT company that tracks online video streaming, this type of content will make up 82% of the online traffic by 2021, a 6% increase from that 2016 figures. For instance, a third of North American online data traffic is reserved for streaming Netflix services.
The number of IT companies boasting of their push to be 100% renewable energy reliant grows by the day. But achieve this is the challenge that these companies must surmount, and it has seen some of the most prominent players build their energy campuses. Switch, one of the world’s cloud giants that runs the top 10 data centres, announced in February its plans to build a solar-powered hub in Central Nevada earmarked to be the largest globally outside China.