Data centres to consume three times as much energy in next decade
The amount of energy consumed by the world’s data centres – the repositories for billions of gigabytes of information – will treble in the next decade, putting an enormous strain on energy supplies and dealing a hefty blow to efforts to contain global warming, experts say.
Whether you’re “liking” something on Facebook, streaming the latest Tarantino movie or posting an instagram from the pub, every internet activity involves huge amounts of data that needs to be stored somewhere. And as the “internet of everything” brings innovations such as driverless cars and high-definition video watches ever closer, the vast network of data centres that have sprung up in the past decade will spread.
This wouldn’t be a problem if these facilities – which range from a small room with a few servers to vast 150,000 square metre “farms” – didn’t consume such enormous amounts of energy.
Already, data centres have mushroomed from virtually nothing 10 years ago to consuming about 3 per cent of the global electricity supply and accounting for about 2 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. That gives it the same carbon footprint as the airline industry.
To put the size of this consumption into even sharper relief – the 416.2 terawatt hours of electricity the world’s data centres used last year was significantly higher than the UK’s total consumption of about 300 terawatt hours.
Massive as data centre energy use may already be, this is nothing to what lies in store, analysts warn. Ian Bitterlin, Britain’s foremost data centre expert and a visiting professor at the University of Leeds, says the amount of energy used by data centres is doubling every four years – despite the innovations in hardware that massively increase their capacity to store data. As a result, analysts forecast that data centres will consume roughly treble the amount of electricity in the next decade.
One way to curb their carbon footprint is to increase the amount of renewable energy they use – a development that is already under way but has much, much further to go to offset the exponential growth in internet traffic, experts say. Even if the industry were able to shift to 100 per cent renewable electricity, the volume of energy they would need would put intolerable pressure on the world’s power systems.