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Green Data Centers for Technological Sustainability

Chloe Dupuis Published on Mar 10,2020
Green Data Centers for Technological Sustainability
Predictions for data center energy use were disputed in a recent article published in Science following dramatic insight into the environmental impact of data centers. At the base of the dispute: As data centers continue to grow with the demand for internet and communication, they also become more efficient.

The predictions

Much attention was gained from an article in Fortune when author Naomi Xu Elegant claimed the music video for the intensely popular “Despacito” burned as much energy as 40,000 US homes use in one year. Though widely questioned and criticized, the article brought up a very real, current issue: The energy consumption and sustainability of data centers.

The carbon footprint of today’s growing number and size of data centers, however, is not news. In fact, energy consumption was predicted to double every four years in a 2016 piece from the UK’s Independentwhich would lead to three times the consumption within a decade. With our own data center contribution and carbon footprint in mind, we had to ask, are these predictions on par today?

The numbers

In that same 2016 article (Independent), data centers were compared to the airline industry, pinning their overall consumption at 3% of the global electricity supply and 2% of total greenhouse gas emissions. The 416.2 terawatt-hours of electricity used by the world’s data centers came in above that of the UK’s total consumption of 300 terawatt-hours. With such dramatic numbers, it’s no wonder author Tom Bawden bleakly went on to state that even if the industry were to transition to a 100% use of renewable electricity, the magnitude of energy required would still put a major strain on the world’s power system.

A recent study published in Science, however, disputes these predictions, pointing out that they don’t consider the simultaneous gains in efficiency. Many have analyzed the study, including Forbes Senior Contributor Jeff MacMahon, who highlights that while data centers ran 550% more applications in 2018 than in 2010, only a 6% increase in energy use was observed, thanks to improvements in energy efficiency and migration to the cloud. From DataCenter KnowledgeYevgeniy Sverdlik focuses on how the world’s data centers consumed 205 terawatt-hours of electricity, or 1% of the global electricity consumption, the same percentage consumed in 2010.

Note that this number is lower than the 3% reported in Independent and the predicted increase of 3 times that within the decade, so far. It also opposes the predictions made in the 2016 United States Data Center Energy Usage Report of a 4% increase in electricity consumption from 2014 to 2020. So, while data center demand and internet traffic continue to increase dramatically, the energy consumption of the industry appears to be leveling out.

But for how long? Predictions are ongoing, including a doubling of global data center compute instances within the next 3 to 4 years. This will require great effort in order to manage the energy demand growth once current efficiency resources have been used up, as is projected. It comes down to how big internet companies and policymakers carve the path to green, sustainable data centers, and how soon.

The Transition

These big internet companies, such as Facebook, Google, and Apple have already begun efforts to decrease the environmental impacts of their datacenters. By housing them in cold climates, for example,  the energy required to cool facilities is reduced, making it easier to rely on renewables for remaining energy requirements.

Still, there’s more to it than that, and as data centers play an increasingly important role in the future of our energy systems, their sooner-than-later transition to more sustainable energy use is becoming critical. Apart from improving the efficiency of facility cooling measures, companies and policymakers can focus on the following points:

  • Migrating data processing to cloud services

  • Developing and publishing efficiency benchmarks of IT devices and data centers

  • Offering incentives to data centers for the use of renewable energy

  • Investing in research for more efficient computing, data storage, communications, and heat-removal technologies

As data centers continue to grow with demand, so to will the efficiency of their energy use. Will it be enough? We’d love to hear what you think.

7Clouds - Contact us today to share your thoughts on green data centers for technological sustainability and help businesses achieve their sustainability goals.


Eric Masanet, Arman Shehabi, Nuoa Lei, Sarah Smith, and Jonathan Koomey, Recalibrating global data center energy-use estimates (Science). February 2020.
Jeff MacMahon, Data Centers  Are Not The Energy Hogs We Thought. March 2020.
Naomi Xu Elegant, The Internet Cloud Has a Dirty Secret. September 2019.
Tom Bawden, Global warming: Data centres to consume three times as much energy in next decade, experts warn. January 2016.
Yevgeniy Sverdlik, Study: Data Centers Responsbile for 1 Percent of All Electricity Consumed Worldwide. February 2020.
Image: Pixabay

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