New Study Finds Data Centres Not as Harmful to the Planet as Earlier Thought

Can digitisation be more harmful to mother nature? A recent study suggests, yes it can be but not as much as thought earlier.

Over the years, the transition into digitisation has created a high demand for data centres – a storage room of large networked computer servers typically used by organisations. The demand has been rising rapidly with the emergence of more data-intensive technologies such as artificial intelligence and well-connected energy systems as well the push for cloud-computing, and experts had projected that this demand won’t diminish in the coming years. It was also assumed that with the rise of more data centres, energy consumption will overall increase and impact climate change.

But a paper published today is now hinting that things are changing with the improvement in energy-efficiency technology.

Data centres are energy-intensive enterprises, estimated to account for around one percent of worldwide electricity use, these trends have clear implications for global energy demand and must be analysed rigorously,” the paper titled ‘Recalibrating global data centre energy-use estimates’ noted.

However, the paper added that data centres’ energy use has gone up, but it’s a very modest increase compared to the growth in data demand. The researchers claimed that the energy consumption by global data centres has remained flat, rising just 6 percent. At the same time, global data centres’ “compute instances” — a measure of how many applications are running at once — grew 550 percent.

“Shifts to faster and more energy-efficient port technologies have enabled a ten-fold increase in the data centre with only modest increases in network device energy use. In sum, although overall energy use of IT devices has increased from around 92 TWh in 2010 to around 130 TWh in 2018, technological and operational efficiency gains have enabled substantial growth in services with comparatively much smaller growth in energy use,” it read.

The researchers also suggested that in the coming years, energy consumption can further reduce with more improvement in technology. The paper concluded saying the latest findings do not dispel the need to research into new energy-efficient technologies and to levy carbon taxes on the industry. “More research funding is needed for developing policy-relevant data centre energy models and for model sharing and research community building that can disseminate and ensure best analytical practices.”

What are analysts saying about the paper

The paper, however, also raised concerns with several researchers. Gary Cook, global climate campaign director at Stand.earth, told OneZero that estimates for data centre energy demands vary widely, due to a lack of transparency among the companies building and operating them. “The authors’ bottom-up estimates aren’t capturing the situation on the ground in places where new data centres are coming online rapidly,” he said.

Chris Adams of the Green Web Foundation also told the website that even if the new findings are accurate, the researchers need to look more closely at the lifespan of the servers inside today’s mega data centres. “This is one of the reasons I agree with the calls for more transparency, as I think we aren’t seeing the whole picture here,” Adams told OneZero.


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