A fact led approach to greener digital infrastructure

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Derek Webster, CEO at Andget explains why data centres and ICT are already enabling a greener solution? He argues that if you look at the facts then population, energy source and use that are key factors in the path to a sustainable green digital infrastructure.

A favourite line I use as often as I can to demonstrate the effect of the digital revolution is that when I went to school, I had books and access to a library; my children went to school with laptops and access to the Internet. 

In 1989, when the World Wide Web was given free to the world, the global population was 5.2 billion and annual global fossil CO2 emission stood at 22.3 gigatonnes. Thirty years later, with the Internet covering almost every inch of the globe, 7.7 billion of us live on Planet Earth, and global emissions stand at 33 gigatonnes. 

Even though these are significant and startling rises of 48 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively (2017 & 2018 saw sharp CO2 declines according to the International Energy Agency (IEA)), taken together they illustrate a ten per cent per capita CO2 reduction over that period – and carbon dioxide accounts for 65 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. When dissecting the impact of the Digital Revolution on the environment, population, energy source, and use is critical.

Digitalisation is transforming the value chain with increased efficiency, productivity, quality and competitiveness. But the digital revolution has also affected social, economic and behavioural changes, with significant carbon, environmental and sustainability impacts.

ICT has also revolutionised the collecting and processing of green data, helping us understand the changing world. Conversely, information about how much ICT and digitisation growth has supported, in part, offset our carbon use, is rare. This article will not answer that macro question. But it will provide insight in terms of global CO2 usage, while acknowledging that as of September 2020, 38 per cent of the world’s population are not internet users.

Cloud comparisons

Digital infrastructure and particularly data centres are often compared to the aviation industry. Aircraft reach actual clouds while data centres are the cloud on the ground, where the silk threads of the web – fibre and connectivity – connect.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that aviation is responsible for about 3.5 per cent of anthropogenic climate change (change caused by human activity). Airline pollution, including CO2 and water vapour at high-altitude, impacts global warming more than pollution on the ground.

As a comparable, according to the IEA, data centres consumed less than one per cent of global electricity demand in 2019 and, as of 2018, were responsible for 0.3 per cent of global carbon emissions. In 2019, data transmission networks were responsible for around one per cent of energy consumed globally. 

Even though digital workloads have increased by 550 per cent since 2010, power demand has levelled in the past six years. Aviation, on the other hand, saw a 21 per cent rise in CO2 over the past four years to 2018, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Other sources show a similar picture. Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) stated that the ICT sector was responsible for 2.3 per cent of emissions in 2020. The GeSI figure in 2015 was 1.4 to two per cent.

The aviation industry represents around 3.6 per cent of global GDP. The digital economy is 22.5 per cent of global GDP, according to Oxford Economics. At the same time, the UNCTAG 2019 report states that the digital economy ranges from 4.5 to 15.5 per cent as a proportion of countries’ GDPs. 

Is digital infrastructure and aviation a fair comparison?

As data centre facilities leverage more efficient infrastructure and source power from increasingly greener energy sources, we see a greener hyperscale energy shift. In 2014, approximate data centre energy usage was as follows – traditional data centres 55 per cent, cloud-based 30 per cent, and hyperscale data centres 15 per cent. In 2018, from 200TWh global usage, traditional data centres were responsible for 20 per cent of the energy used, cloud-based 35 per cent, and hyperscale data centres 45 per cent. 

This trend is significant. In 2016, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL-1005775) estimated that if 80 per cent of US servers in smaller data centres migrated into hyperscale facilities, energy usage would fall by 25 per cent. Another fact often overlooked is that the technology and communications sectors dominate corporate agreements to purchase renewable electricity.

Covid-19 impact 

It is a critical time for critical infrastructure. The global economy is set to shrink by six per cent with 20 per cent fewer energy investments due to the unfortunate global Covid-19 pandemic. 

China has announced a $1.4trillion stimulus package (to 2025) which include new digital infrastructure as part of an economic stimulus. 5G sees a significant boost in funding, as is a call for AI and automation.

In the UK data centre staff have been recognised as key workers, and there is a push to designate data centres as Critical National Infrastructure (CNI).

The European Union is prioritising digitisation as part of its €750bn Covid-19 stimulus package to which €150 billion is part of its new Strategic Investment Facility boosting resilience to the green and digital transition value chains. In addition to its €31billion to unlock cleaner, digital and a resilient future from a new Solvency Support Instrument.

Yet, we also see some interesting changes to digital infrastructure usage. A new study by Website Builder Expert noted that internet usage is up 70 per cent, with online streaming showing an 85 per cent increase. According to Nokia, aggregated data volumes are 25 per cent above pre-Covid levels, Vodafone has seen voice and data demand surge by 50 per cent. 

How have these rises impacted electricity and carbon emissions? The GSM Association (which represents 750 mobile telecom operators) provided the following commentary: 

  1. Telefonica in Spain has seen 35 per cent data increases without significant electricity/carbon emissions. 
  2. Telia Nordic & Baltics have seen a 20 per cent increase in traffic with one per cent more electricity use from its 90 per cent renewable energy (100 per cent expected in 2020). 
  3. British Telecom (BT) in the UK has seen a 100 per cent increase in daytime broadband for the same energy use from its 92 per cent renewable energy. 
  4. London telecom networks have seen energy consumption and carbon use mostly unchanged. 

Covid-19 has shown us that existing digital infrastructure has the inherent capacity to change how we work while making us more reliant on ICT (and thus increasing its criticality). In March 2020, CO2 in New York fell by ten per cent and in Paris by an incredible 72 per cent. New York researchers told the BBC that early results had shown carbon monoxide mainly from cars was down 50 per cent compared to 2019 levels. 

The UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology stated that in some British cities’ pollution was down 60 per cent during the lockdown. In the UK, 87 per cent of citizens currently working from home said they would like to continue to do so to some degree. Should that happen that represents 17 million people continuing with remote or some form of flexible working. The numbers are still to be collected and crunched. Nevertheless, indications suggest a more flexible working lifestyle with reduced commutes and lower office occupations might be one feature of the new normal.

ICT at the core of the green agenda

GeSI states that ICT can reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 20 per cent versus a no-change approach by 2030 (equivalent to holding emissions to 2015 levels), providing $11 trillion in new economic and social benefits and an estimated 30 per cent increase in agriculture yields for less water. 

GeSI also predicts that AI will reduce GHG by four per cent in 2030 — the combined emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan. Google already uses AI to reduce data centre energy by 15 per cent, with a six per cent reduction in cooling.

Indeed, GeSI has been vocal for some time about how digital technologies can dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions and global warming potential (GWP). In the future, they predict transformative reductions thanks to digitalisation. 

Impact on CO2 emissions (tonnes)

  1. E-commerce: – 1bn 
  2. Virtual meetings and remote working: – 0.5bn 
  3. Smart Grid: – 2bn 
  4. Smart motors: – 0.97bn
  5. Smart buildings: – 1.7bn 
  6. Transportation: – 1.52bn 

These findings are echoed by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which states that digital technology can cut global emissions by 15 per cent. Adding that connectivity will be a crucial enabler, through solutions in energy, manufacturing, agriculture and land use, buildings, services, transportation (21 per cent of current emissions) and traffic management. WEF also sights 5G as the next exponential technology, with data speeds ten to 100 times faster over 4G, all while consuming less energy (around 90 per cent less energy per/bit than 4G.)

More about those data centres

The cloud on the ground sees organisations increasingly move workloads from less efficient on-premises data centres to more efficient colocation and cloud data centres in more sustainable locations for operations. 

Corporate board rooms are turning greener to combat climate change and take responsibility while increasing brand value. The data centre sector has consistently exhibited continual self-regulating improvements regarding best practice and energy. The European Code of Conduct (ECoC), the standard EN 50600 series (information technology – data centre facilities and infrastructure) are good examples and significant resources.

Another is The Open Compute Project (OCP) Foundation, a data centre industry collective in part reimagining compute hardware, making it more efficient, flexible and scalable. We are now at the server and rack level. OCP shows how you can obtain more efficient, focused equipment for less. For example, on average one OCP hyperscaler server (not limited to hyperscaler use) could replace 3.75 servers in a conventional data centre. 

Facebook claims OCP kit has saved them $1.2 billion in its first three years and Microsoft runs over 90 per cent of their hardware as OCP. OCP has a project called OCP TIP (Telco Infra Project), which in 2018 saved enough energy to power 80,000 homes per annum, with carbon reductions of about 400,000 metric tons which is the equivalent of taking 95,000 cars off the road per year, according to Facebook.

We have seen that around 50 per cent of data centre energy use comes from the hyperscalers. Here is how some are doing.

  1. Google (5.5GW renewable energy): In 2017 announced 100 per cent renewable energy across its data centres and operations. Forty per cent of this is via renewable energy power purchase agreements. Google claims that all data processed via Google Cloud has zero net carbon emissions. Some data centres still use fossil fuels yet are offset via Renewable Energy Credits (REC); these are, in essence, a token that represents a green energy generation utility. Google is the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy.
  2. Microsoft Azure (1.9GW renewable energy): Microsoft claims its data centres have been using 100 per cent reusable energy since 2014, 60 per cent renewable the remaining in REC. It has invested in multiple hydropower purchase agreements.
  3. Amazon Web Services (1.6GW renewable energy). Amazon (2018) announced 50 per cent renewable energy use with remaining REC. in 2019, Greenpeace reported that Amazon had abandoned its 100 per cent commitment by expanding operations by 59 per cent without renewable energy. Amazon states 100 per cent renewable is still its ambition.

There is also an increasing number of data centre projects reusing waste energy or heat. The Nordic region has existing infrastructure, making reuse of energy into CHP systems more easily accessible. 

An example of Combined Data & Heat (CDH) is Yandex’s project in Mäntsälä, Finland. Yandex, the world’s fifth-largest search engine, supplies hot water from its data centre to Mäntsälä City, assisting the reduction of the city’s CO2 emissions by up to 40 per cent. The estimated reduction in heating costs for residents is five per cent, and the project has reduced utilities’ provision of gas consumption by half. The collaboration with the city allows Yandex to cut data centre electricity expenditure by up to a third. 

Future technology on the horizon

Currently, we are reaching the limit to how far we can go with silicon and the issue of heat generation at the chip. “We’re up against the limits of shrinkage,” Jonathan Koomey, a California-based IT consultant, says. Achieving comparable efficiency gains will require a revolution in how hardware is built, and computing is done. “It is basically impossible to predict,” he says.

What if is a great question, period! Yet what if you could perform per Watt 100x or 1,000x more for 10x or 100x less energy and nearly zero heat generation from CPU activity? What if you could store all the world’s data in the volume of a candy bar, maybe even in glass for 10,000 years? 

We need not look any further than Photonic Computer/CPU, Carbon Nanotubes/CPU and DNA Storage. All three are existing and proven, yet that is not the same as ready to market for widespread adoption. These are potentially game-changing innovations and vastly reduce the predominant and majority user of data centre energy – the servers – and all but eliminate bulk cooling requirements.

Green capacity of change

Climate change is a reality, and the evidence of anthropogenic climate change is unequivocal and overwhelming. We have seen in this article that ICT, data centres and digital infrastructure have a solid platform to drive carbon reduction while showing investment opportunities and the ability to be part of a sustainable solution. 

From its 2.3 per cent emission, the sectors can drive a 10x multiple (circa 20 per cent) carbon reduction by 2030. There is also a growing belief that, at a macro perspective, large ICT implementations have a few years of lag before positive effects of lower CO2 emissions.

It is the responsibility of governments and enterprises to help secure a sustainable future and take responsible action through leadership, insight, decisiveness and innovation towards the best possible future. Today it is population, energy source and use that are key, from here on we need to add deliverable integrated infrastructure driving change. Yes, ICT and data centres are very much part of that realm.  


Derek Webster CEO at Andget

Derek Webster CEO at Andget, is a Data Center sector consultant, advisory, client principle and advocate and speaker.  He has over 30 years sector experience, leading teams and delivering global digital infrastructure, strategy and solutions. He spans the gambit working with clients from funding rounds, pre-budget business case, DC strategy, market positioning, to country and site selection, design and build to delivery. He has worked with hyperscalers, global brands, telecoms and enterprises. He has helped governments and development agencies to align and review their Foreign Direct Investors (FDI), attractiveness, value propositions to their National offers.


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