We live in an age of information saturation.
Our modern hyper-connected lives depend on websites, CRMs and repositories of data of all shapes and sizes stored in the cloud, distributed across massive data centre servers.
Video clips, social media posts, articles, e-books, databases of big (there’s a lot of data size queens out there) and small kinds, news bites, sound bites. Huge bites (well, “bytes”) of data!
How big are these bytes exactly?
According to the 2015 Cisco Global Cloud Index, the total amount of data stored in data centres worldwide will increase by over 5 times from 171 Exabytes in 2015 (EB – that is 1000 (1018) bytes or packets of data, one quintillion in fact) to 915 EB in 2020. 1 exabyte is around 1 billion gigabytes!
That’s a whole lot of chewing, and our mouths are only getting fuller and fuller…
The United States alone in 2013 used 91 billion kilowatt-hours (B kWH) of power to fire up their data centres. For scale, the total energy use of the US is just over 4,000 B kWH. So data centres are chewing up over 2% of total energy in the US – making them a significant contributor to CO2 production, leading to around 97 million mega tonnes (MT) of carbon emissions in 2013 alone. By NRDC estimates this is set to increase to 139 B kwH and 147 million MT by 2020.
On a global scale the impacts are much higher. According to Ian Bitterlin, one of Britain’s most respected data centre experts, the 416 terrawatt hours of electricity that data centres used worldwide last year was significantly higher than the entire electricity consumption of the UK, around 300 terrawatt hours. He predicts that data centres will consume roughly triple this amount of electricity in the next 10 years and sees this as a significant cause for concern. Ian says: “If we carry on going the way we have been it would become unsustainable – this level of data centre growth is not sustainable beyond the next 10 to 15 years. The question is, what are we going to do about it?”
The “doers” greening the cloud
Some good news is there are a number of government and industry led initiatives beginning to tackle this challenge. Sparked by the US White House plan to cut CO2 pollution by 30%, Australia’s National Energy Productivity Plan, similar initiatives worldwide led by UNFCCC and a general growing consumer demand for more environmentally sustainable services, major data centre users and providers alike are working to reduce the environmental impacts of their energy use. This challenge is being tackled in a broad variety of ways.
Barclays Bank has been working since 2009 to increasing the energy efficiency of their physical servers by minimising under-used servers. These measures are what director Paul Nally sees as “cleaning up after yourself” which lets you “remove a lot of noise from the environment”.
Apple’s global data centres run on 100% clean energy worldwide, a massive feat when you consider their huge storage footprint across iMessages and iTunes downloads alone. They are striving towards the lofty goal of 100% clean energy use across their entire operations, sitting at 93% in 2015.
eBay, as well as investing extensively in data efficiency initiatives has also invested in energy storage capacity to increase their use of renewable power across their data centres.
Google take a multi-faceted strategy incorporating efficient data centres, renewable energy, carbon offsets, investment in renewable energy projects and products that allow their end users to be more energy efficient, bringing their overall carbon footprint down below zero. They recently announced that in 2017 Google will be completely powered by renewable energy.
Amazon Web Services, one of the world’s largest data centre providers has reached a massive 40% renewable energy usage across their global operations, with the goal to reach 50% by 2017 and transition towards 100% use over time. AWS Distinguished Engineer James Hamilton is convinced this is simply a matter of time and realistic planning. ““For us to make that commitment, we at least have to see a path to get there,” he said. “We are not afraid of big challenges. We will sign up for difficult tasks, but we have to see a path where we can actually reasonably get there.”
Luis Neves, Chairman of the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) is also optimistic about the shift of data centres towards strong environmental credentials. He says “Our findings show an ICT-enabled world by 2030 that is cleaner, healthier and more prosperous with greater opportunities for individuals everywhere.”
Luis also raises the important role of data centres and data analytics capabilities to practically reduce greenhouse emissions if used effectively. He estimates that by managing industrial processes more effectively using data and analytics the ICT sector could help mitigate the production of around 12 gigatonnes of CO2 by the year 2030.
Greening the cloud in Australia
In 2014 the Australian Federal Department of Industry released a discussion paper looking into energy efficiency policy options for Australian and New Zealand Data Centres. Many of the findings of this report have been implemented, including the transition towards greater use of government accredited energy efficient data centres through their NABERS scheme.
ICT energy efficiency also forms a strong focus of the current National Energy Productivity Plan, a whole of government national approach to improving Australia’s energy efficiency across government, industry and the general public.
Beyond these nationally coordinated approaches, anyone can make a positive change towards cleaner energy usage through the choice of where they host their website data storage.
Australian-based Mother Domains is making the shift towards greener data hosting by partnering with website data storage provider Digital Pacific. Through their Green Hosting scheme, Digital Pacific offer 100% carbon neutral green web hosting, delivered via carbon offsets and a growing level of renewable energy use. For more details on their green credentials and a transparent break down of the clean energy initiatives they have in place visit https://www.digitalpacific.com.au/green-hosting/
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About the Author
Alicia Boyd is an event producer passionate about progressive ideas, collaboration & community & early career scientist. Her recent event projects include All-Energy – Australia’s biggest renewable and clean energy focussed gathering attracting 5000+ visitors – www.all-energy.com.au.
For more info on the kind of work she does visit http://www.aconnectedevent.com/.