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With IT energy demands set to increase 50 percent by 2030, how can we build a sustainable future?

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(Image credit: Image Credit: Skeeze / Pixabay)

Today an insatiable demand for digital services and connectivity is driving significant growth in IT and communications infrastructure. Inevitably, with such accelerated growth, more electricity will be needed to power the data centers and edge computing systems driving this digital transformation. 

Data centers are the backbone of the world’s digital economy, and various analysts predict that they account for around 1-2 percent of global electricity consumption. However, in 2020, the overall IT sector was estimated to represent between 5 percent and 15 percent of global energy use. 

A key question remains, however, how much more power will our sector require as digitalization surges? And as such, how can these demands be met without adding to the environmental problems caused by increased carbon emissions?

Digital acceleration is endemic

Given the unpredictability around how today’s digital infrastructure will progress over the next decade, and the unknown forms the technology will take, there is an argument that it will be difficult to predict exactly how much power will be needed. For instance, who could have predicted the changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and the digital impact of its associated lockdowns? 

No one could’ve foreseen that the Zoom user base would have increased from 10m to 200m between December 2019 and March 2020, and had so many people not been forced to work, or become educated remotely, one might question if digital demands would have accelerated so quickly?  

What’s clear is that when global lockdowns hit, the world logged on, and internet traffic soared. Indeed, since the outbreak, consumption of in-home digital media and video streaming by worldwide internet users increased significantly, with around 51 percent of the world’s population using more streaming services and 45 percent spending longer on messaging services.

Businesses and indeed consumers have become dependent on these digital technologies, which, in turn, are reliant on data centers, power and distributed IT infrastructure. Such technology is built into the fabric of the digital economy, and without it, life pre and post-pandemic, would be very different.

IT-sector energy predictions

Various stakeholders have attempted to predict the levels of power required to sustain the digitized economy, and the accompanying analyses are many. Schneider Electric’s Sustainability Research Institute has carried out its own research analysis to estimate the amount of power likely to be needed by the IT sector, which has been published in our Digital Economy and Climate Impact Report. 

Factoring in the potential improvements in both IT and power efficiencies that may be expected in the coming years, we anticipate that global demand for electricity in the IT sector will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) equivalent to 5 percent: Reaching a figure of 3,200TWh by 2030, and representing a 50 percent increase in power consumption over the next decade. 

Of course many other analysts have attempted to predict IT energy demands, and due to the lack of a  standardized framework, the results are both differing and many. One of those best-known was produced by Anders Andrae in 2015 and forecast a worst-case scenario of 30,700TWh, which is more than 10 times our estimates. A revision of its study published in 2020, however, forecasts that IT energy demands would sit between, 2,200 and 3,200TWh by 2030, which is very much in line with the Schneider Electric Sustainability Research Institute findings.

Energy growth and digital adoption

It is inarguable that we will need more power to sustain our digitized way of life, and it is incumbent upon all key stakeholders within the IT and data center sectors to ensure that energy is used as efficiently and as sustainably as possible. 

Data published in our Digital Economy and Climate Impact Report predicts that 75 percent of the growth in electricity consumption leading toward 2030 will come from data centers and networks, with the biggest drivers being the computing and storage requirements of big data and artificial intelligence (AI), both expected to grow significantly, and mobile communications, which will be driven by the growth of 5G networks. 

The most visible evidence of the growth in digital services is the growth in IP traffic, which Cisco expects to surge at a CAGR of 26 percent to 2023. Over the same period, it expects mobile data traffic to grow at an even faster CAGR of 46 percent and Schneider Electric expects that 5G networks could represent 70 percent of mobile traffic by 2030. 

As a result of this growth, we anticipate that total electricity consumption related to telecommunications networks will grow at a CAGR of 10 percent until 2030. So if that’s the case, how do we solve the sustainability problem? 

Decarbonizing the digital future

The efficiency of large data centers has improved greatly in recent years, in part due to increased virtualization, improvements in cooling efficiencies and the greater attention paid to metrics such as Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE). However, the steady improvement in PUE for larger installations is likely to be offset by the growth in number of smaller, more distributed data centers at the edge of the network. 

As more IT moves to the edge it’s essential we deploy distributed IT infrastructure in a sustainable way, learning and adopting the lessons of past data center deployments. It’s, therefore, paramount we design systems using greater standardization, build them for a specific PUE, and ensure sites are managed in a way that delivers both resilience and energy efficiency. 

Ensuring that such growth in IT infrastructure does not cause a comparable surge in the amount of carbon emissions also requires an industry-wide commitment to decarbonization. Energy companies are already moving to renewable and carbon-free methods of production, but IT stakeholders must continue to embrace strategies that deliver sustainability across the entire digital ecosystem; from systems design to procurement, and throughout facility operations. 

While our analysis shows that the IT-sector-related electricity demand is expected to increase 50 percent by 2030, emissions will not increase by more than 26 percent. This is largely due to the decarbonization of the electricity system. Moreover, as large IT players continue to make firm commitments to reduce CO2 throughout their operations, our report finds that IT sector emissions could be neutralized by 2030.

What’s clear is that digital technologies can directly help reduce total energy demand throughout all industries. And through increased electrification, reduced energy wastage and a collaborative focus on sustainability, our sector has the ability to build a truly sustainable, digital future.

Marc Garner, Vice President of Secure Power Division in the UK and Ireland, Schneider Electric

Marc Garner, VP, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric.