It’s almost impossible to qualify, much less quantify, the amount of disruption and destruction the spread of the novel coronavirus caused to the global economy. One of the many side effects of the pandemic was to push the world even further into the digital age as more and more of our work and social lives have shifted from the physical world to cyberspace. More of us are spending more time online than ever, and this means that the amount of computing power being used around the world is exploding.
This is especially true as Big Data becomes an ever-larger and ever more relevant economic sector, with growing numbers of industries increasingly turning to the employment of data-driven analytics to help guide decision making. All of this bodes very, very poorly for the world’s carbon footprint.
Data centers eat up a gargantuan and growing amount of energy; the internet’s energy and ecological footprints are massive and growing. “Google estimates that each search emits roughly 0.2 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere, due to the energy it takes to power the cables, routers, and servers that make Google work,” Wired reported back in 2018. “Watching or uploading a video to YouTube is worse for the environment: 1 gram of carbon for every 10 minutes of viewing.” All of those seemingly innocuous clicks really add up: internet companies like Google collectively emit as much carbon dioxide as the global airline industry--and that statistic is from well before COVID-19 grounded most planes.
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In fact, COVID-19 actually brought about a 6% drop in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions last year. But that brief sojourn from business as usual was short-lived. Energy demand has bounced back in a big way; emissions are already returning to normal, and they’re set to climb--and data centers are a big part of the problem. According to data published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), data centers around the world gobble up around 200 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity per year, which translates to nearly 1% of global electricity demand and 0.3% of all global CO2 emissions.
While the transportation, agricultural, and energy industries get the brunt of the blame (and not undeservedly so) for dangerously high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to potentially catastrophic climate change in the not-so-distant future, data centers are an increasingly crucial part of the problem--as well as its potential solution. “There’s no pathway to a cleaner planet without addressing the sizable energy consumption of the data centers powering our increasingly digitized economy,” Forbes reported this week.
There are a number of solutions to our data center energy problem. One is for the owners of such data centers to build on-site renewable energy capacity or to partner with green energy suppliers. Tech companies such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have been relatively proactive about doing just this, and Amazon recently even became the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy, with plans to keep buying up more each year. Google has also taken another innovative approach to their data centers’ sizeable carbon footprint by converting one of its massive server farms into one enormous battery for renewable energy storage.
Just as important, albeit far less sexy, is the task of improving data centers’ operational efficiency. A study published earlier this year by Israeli AI and performance optimization firm Granulate surveyed senior IT professionals at 100 companies that were spending almost $1 million per year on cloud computing and found that more than half of them were only utilizing a measly 20%-40% of their CPU capacity. “It is these very underutilized, partially idle servers that continue to consume substantial amounts of energy, imposing unnecessary costs on businesses and contributing to tens if not hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 emissions,” Forbes assessed.
Improving infrastructure such as cooling systems and servers, as well as investing in new processors, can lead to significant reductions in data centers’ energy consumption. The technology for computing power and chips also continues to improve rapidly, which will almost certainly lead to improved efficiency outcomes. AI software such as that touted by Granulate can also help to more effectively manage infrastructure and efficiently utilize CPU capacity.
All of these potential solutions and technological advancements bode well for data centers and their currently alarming ecological footprint. With some very feasible improvements and investments in already proven technologies, internet and computing usage can continue to grow without further imperiling the climate.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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