The IEA’s five-point plan for a sustainable data future

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The International Energy Agency (IEA) has made five recommendations to the ICT industry to limit growth in energy demand and emissions over the coming decade. It calls on the sector improve data collection, encourage energy efficiency, use data centres as drivers for renewable energy, explore efficient networks and increase investment in R&D.

In the report ‘Data Centres and Data Transmission Networks’ the IEA reported that global internet traffic grew by almost 40% between February and mid-April, driven by the remote working and lockdowns necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This growth comes on top of rising demand for digital services over the past decade: since 2010, the number of internet users worldwide has doubled while global internet traffic has grown 12-fold. However, rapid improvements in energy efficiency have helped to limit energy demand growth from data centres and data transmission networks, which each accounted for around 1% of global electricity use in 2019.

The report stated: “Demand for data centre and network services is expected to continue to grow strongly, but how this affects energy use will still be determined largely by the pace of energy efficiency gains. Government policies, as well as data centre and network operator actions and commitments, will be essential to support further efficiency improvements to moderate overall ICT energy use. The incentive to reduce energy use is strong, as energy costs make up a significant share of ICT companies’ operational expenditures (20-40% for network operators).

Make better use of data

The first of the five recommendations is to improve data collection and commit to efficiency and climate targets. The IEA believes that improving data collection on ICTs and their energy-use characteristics can help inform energy analysis and policymaking. It points to how the US Energy Information Administration collects data on connected devices in homes (RECS) and commercial buildings (CBECS), as well as on servers in data centres (CBECS).

Earlier this year when the European Commission released its digital strategy a key action for the ICT sector was to achieve climate neutrality by 2030 while improving data collection and transparency: “Initiatives to achieve climate-neutral, highly energy-efficient and sustainable data centres by no later than 2030 and transparency measures for telecoms operators on their environmental footprint”.

In February the ITU issued a standard that highlighted that compliance with the Paris Agreement will require the ICT industry to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 45% from 2020 to 2030. The standard will support ICT companies in reducing GHG emissions at the rate necessary to meet the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In the European Union and the United States, companies have adopted voluntary agreements to improve the efficiency of connected set-top boxes.

A convergence with grid infrastructure

Several of the key recommendations centre around the data community’s future relationship with the power grid. The IEA is clear that data centres can be a more efficient and flexible resource in the grid than they are today. Governments can encourage further energy efficiency through guidance, incentives, and standards, while regulations and price signals could help incentivise demand-side flexibility.

When it comes to renewable energy, it says that governments and grid operators can work with data centre operators to determine how renewable energy investments can most optimally benefit the whole system as well as contribute towards national energy and climate targets. Investment in energy storage and other demand-side response capacity can also be encouraged as a complement to more renewable capacity.

“Governments and network operators could be instrumental in implementing policies and programmes to improve the energy efficiency of data transmission networks,” the reports says. “Actions could include accelerating the phase-out of energy-intensive legacy networks, implementing network device energy efficiency standards, improving metrics and incentives for efficient network operations, and supporting international technology protocols.”

Demand for data centre services will continue to grow strongly, driven by media streaming and emerging technologies such as AI, virtual reality, 5G and blockchain. As efficiency trends of current technologies slow (or even stall) in upcoming years, new, more efficient technologies will be needed to keep pace with growing data demand.




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