“Tsunami of data” could consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025

11th December 2017 | Commercial Energy

The communications industry could use 20% of all the world’s electricity by 2025, hampering attempts to meet climate change targets and straining grids as demand by power-hungry server farms storing digital data from billions of smartphones, tablets and internet-connected devices grows exponentially.

The industry has long argued that it can considerably reduce carbon emissions by increasing efficiency and reducing waste, but academics are challenging industry assumptions. A new paper, due to be published by US researchers later this month, will forecast that information and communications technology could create up to 3.5% of global emissions by 2020 – surpassing aviation and shipping – and up to 14% 2040, around the same proportion as the US today.

Global computing power demand from internet-connected devices, high resolution video streaming, emails, surveillance cameras and a new generation of smart TVs is increasing 20% a year, consuming roughly 3-5% of the world’s electricity in 2015, says Swedish researcher Anders Andrae.

In an update to a 2016 peer-reviewed study, Andrae found that without dramatic increases in efficiency, the ICT industry could use 20% of all electricity and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2025. This would be more than any country, except the US, China and India.

He expects industry power demand to increase from 200-300 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity a year now, to 1,200 or even 3,000 TWh by 2025. Data centres on their own could produce 1.9 gigatonnes (Gt) (or 3.2% of the global total) of carbon emissions, he says.

“This situation is alarming,” said Andrae, who works for the Chinese communications technology firm Huawei. “We have a tsunami of data approaching. Everything which can be is being digitalised. It is a perfect storm. 5G [the fifth generation of mobile technology] is coming, IP [internet protocol] traffic is much higher than estimated, and all cars and machines, robots, and artificial intelligence are being digitalised, producing huge amounts of data which is stored in data centres.”

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