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Tsvetana Paraskova

Tsvetana Paraskova

Tsvetana is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing for news outlets such as iNVEZZ and SeeNews. 

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How Fossil Fuels Power The Internet

Widespread digitalization and the Fourth Industrial Revolution have helped all industries to increase efficiencies and reduce costs. The energy industry is no exception, with a growing number of firms using all kinds of digital solutions as they seek cost cuts and higher profitability.

Yet, data analytics, predictive analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) for any industry require more and more data centers. Increased internet and cell phone use around the world and smart appliances and smart home solutions need more and more infrastructure.

And all these new technologies and apps need a lot more energy. The growing number of social media users requires more and more electricity, and this electricity, for a very large part, comes from oil, natural gas, and coal. The Internet is 24/7 and right now, the world’s 24/7 electricity supply can be ensured only with fossil fuels dominating the power generation industries.

Ironically, all campaigns against fossil fuels on social media with calls to “keep it in the ground” are powered by… fossil fuels.  

And until renewable energy sources can be safely and reliably incorporated in the power grids around the world, there won’t be 100-percent renewable energy to power the Internet and its many uses by people and corporations.

The Internet is already sucking up a lot of fossil fuel-generated power

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, data centers are one of the most energy-intensive buildings. They suck up 10 to 50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building. Taken together, data centers account for around 2 percent of total U.S. electricity use.  

“As our country’s use of information technology grows, data center and server energy use is expected to grow too,” the DOE says.

The more data there is to process, the more energy it will require, is the logic applied to energy use for data centers. Related: Here’s Why Oil Prices Should Go Higher

But the most recent research on data centers’ energy use globally showed last week that efficiencies in processors and computing over the past decade have kept energy use basically flat.

Researchers at Northwestern University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Koomey Analytics published a study in the journal Science on Friday, arguing that despite the dramatic surge in data center workloads, computation, traffic, and storage capacity, the electricity use of global data centers has remained flat.

“While the historical efficiency progress made by data centers is remarkable, our findings do not mean that the IT industry and policymakers can rest on their laurels,” Eric Masanet, who led the study, said in a statement.

Masanet is an adjunct professor in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and the Mellichamp Chair in Sustainability Science for Emerging Technologies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  

“We think there is enough remaining efficiency potential to last several more years. But ever-growing demand for data means that everyone — including policy makers, data center operators, equipment manufacturers and data consumers — must intensify efforts to avoid a possible sharp rise in energy use later this decade,” Masanet noted.

So, the exponential growth in data and Internet use around the world—especially in emerging markets with booming Internet penetration as more people gain access to energy, the Internet, and technologies—is set to drive increased demand for electricity.

Tech Giants Pledge 100-Percent Renewables Use

To be sure, Big Tech is pledging 100-percent renewables use in their operations, and although they have made progress in this area, they are still far from this target.

Google, for example, acquired 100-percent renewable energy to match its annual electricity consumption for global operations, including data centers and offices, in both 2017 and 2018. Related: Oil Prices Rise As Market Expects Large OPEC+ Cut

But it admits that “Although our 100% renewable milestone signifies that we buy enough renewable energy over the course of a year to match our annual electricity consumption, it does not mean that our facilities are matched with renewable energy in every hour of every day.”

Amazon is committed to using 100-percent renewable energy across its global infrastructure as scaling up the use of renewable energy is a critical part of Amazon’s goal to reach net zero carbon by 2040.

Big Tech was the biggest buyer of corporate clean energy in 2019, with Google leading the pack and Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft following as the next largest corporate buyers of clean energy, BloombergNEF (BNEF) said in a report in January.

Despite the commitments of the world’s largest technology corporations to use growing shares of renewable energy for operations, the grid’s stability, especially in the U.S., is still ensured by fossil-fueled power generation, which accounted for 62.7 percent of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation. Renewables, including hydropower, held a share of 17.5 percent.

Data centers in China, however, are mostly powered by coal

The digital revolution needs energy and until power grids around the world can support all-renewable energy sources, the Internet will continue to need fossil fuels to operate 24/7.   

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com 

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Leave a comment
  • Ronald Stein on March 05 2020 said:
    And all these new technologies of data analytics, predictive analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) for any industry require more and more data centers and increased internet and cell phone use around the world and smart appliances and they all need a lot more energy, i.e., electricity. They ALSO need the products manufactured from petroleum derivatives. Those petroleum derivatives are not produced by wind or solar. In fact, wind and solar intermittent electricity is also dependent on those petroleum derivatives as all the parts of wind turbines and solar panel are made with those petroleum products.

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