One of the greatest sustainability challenges that many tech businesses and specifically tech ‘giants’ face over the coming few years is how (literally) on earth can they continue to power their services, our products, the web and the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ with a rapidly diminishing number of hard energy resources.
The colossal data centres and server farms that power the digital world are dotted all around the planet and use an astonishing amount of energy to keep the lights and data ‘on’. Although many improvements have been made in terms of the green footprint of what are in effect small towns – be this building new centres using hydro power as a source or close to the Arctic circle to use the natural air temperature rather than air conditioning to cool servers down, these centres are still major drains on global energy – here some figures to consider;
- Throughout 2015 in the US, data centres used 3% of the country’s total electricity – which by the way was more than the whole of the UK.
- Google alone uses the same amount of electricity in a year as the city of San Francisco
- By 2025 estimates suggest that the ‘data economy’ (i.e. the web) will use 20% of global electricity
The last of those figures is particularly alarming – the advent of the increased use of the internet in all its forms could be a major hurdle in the global goal of achieving climate change targets.
Think about the amount of content that is created every day (think about the amount of content you create every day), the number of new devices being sold – from smartphones, to smart speakers to the internet of things – think about the fact that all these devices need to communicate and transfer data.
Let’s look at Bitcoin, streaming video, 5G, AI and driverless cars – each and every one of these technological advancements and – to be honest – day to day digital behaviours may well be more efficient individually but put together in a wave of energy use – well 20% by 2025 starts to look like an underestimate.
And, although Moore’s Law (the exponential increase of processing power) can address some of the energy increases – due to more powerful processors using less energy – the growth of the digital world in terms of moving away from screens into cars, healthcare and everyday lives is creating what previously was an unimaginable level of demand on energy resources.
But some companies have started to think more creatively in terms of their own responsibility. In an age where people’s awareness of the fragility of the planet has increased with the result that individual behaviours have changed to reflect that awareness (for example, 7% of the UK population is now vegan) the demand for businesses to follow suit has also increased.
Google have recently bought enough renewable energy to cover all their use for 2018. Amazon have created data centres that require no air-conditioning and Tesla have built solar farms that – in the most extreme case – can power an entire Australian state.
The latest example of a business doing just that is Microsoft who have recently ‘sunk’ a small data centre off the cost of the UK’s premier renewable energy area – The Orkney Islands. The company believe that this test project will allow it to learn if larger scale deployments can be successful.
The centre still requires power from land but being underwater, less energy is required to cool the hundreds of servers onboard. And although the sea temperature around the centre will increase both Microsoft and their partner in the project (The European Marine Energy Centre) believe that this will be limited to a thousandth of a degree.
Whether the project is a success or not – there really is no choice for those businesses that underpin the digital world in terms of reducing their levels of energy consumption, not only from an economic and commercial perspective, nor even a customer perspective but as a moral and ethical driver to really ensure that the fourth industrial revolution lives up to the hype and is a real revolution in terms of sustainable energy use.