Issue: December 2014, GREEN IT! – Information, communications and climate action

In Focus

Unregulated growth

Data centres and telecommunication networks: more climate action needed

Larger, faster, better: we’re demanding more and more from our information technology. We want higher resolution, faster transmission and added convenience. But this doesn’t just increase the demands on the information and communication technologies themselves: it also means that more and more is expected of data centres and telecommunication networks, which play a key role in ensuring that we can operate our devices. According to projections by the Oeko-Institut, these centres and networks will account for a significantly increased share of ICT-related electricity consumption – and therefore ICT-related greenhouse gas emissions – in future. However, there is still a lack of publicly available data, effective industry initiatives and environmental policy measures to address this issue.

Further strong growth in the share of ICT-related electricity consumption is expected over the coming years. ICT-related electricity consumption (excluding manufacturing) in the EU-27 amounted to 214 TWh in 2011, and is expected to increase to 259 TWh in 2020. The usage of ICT products (home and office) still accounts for the major share, with approximately 66 per cent of total ICT-related electricity consumption, according to a recent study prepared for the European Commission by the Oeko-Institut and TU Berlin. In absolute terms, the electricity consumption of ICT products in 2011 in the EU-27 was 142 TWh, with TVs accounting for the largest share of all products. “However, we are not expecting any growth in this sector: indeed, we believe that a slight decrease to 139 TWh in 2020 can be expected,” says Siddharth Prakash, a senior researcher in the Oeko-Institut’s Sustainable Products and Material Flows Research Division. “This decrease is partly due to the broader use of mobile products and to energy efficiency improvements.”

However, Siddharth Prakash is predicting substantial increases in electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in two other sectors: data centres and telecommunication networks. “In 2011, the collective share of data centres and telecommunication networks in the total ICT-related electricity consumption in the EU-27 amounted to 33 per cent, and we are expecting this to increase to about 46 per cent in 2020,” says Siddharth. “This means that data centres and telecommunication networks would account for around 3.8 per cent of total electricity consumption in the EU in 2020.” The researchers forecast that the electricity consumption of data centres will increase from 52 TWh in 2011 to 70 TWh in 2020 – a rise of almost 35 per cent, due to increased Internet and cloud services usage. “Without the expected efficiency measures, energy demand here would undoubtedly be higher still,” says the Oeko-Institut’s expert. The telecommunication networks’ electricity consumption is rising even more dramatically. “Here, we are forecasting growth from 20 TWh in 2011 to 50 TWh in 2020,” says Siddharth Prakash. “That’s an increase of 150 per cent.” The largest growth is expected for mobile data traffic, enabled by more capable mobile networks and an increasing number of mobile devices with significant computing power.

More efficiency

An important step in mitigating these rising greenhouse gas emissions was taken in 2011 with the introduction of the Blue Angel ecolabel for Green Data Centres. “The first task was to raise operators’ awareness of their data centres’ energy consumption,” says Jens Gröger from the Oeko-Institut. “At present, there is very little awareness of how much energy and resources are being consumed here – both in total and by individual services.” The Oeko-Institut therefore identified, as one of the award criteria, the data which need to be collected by the data centres for the purpose of energy monitoring. Recommendations for energy efficiency increases have also been developed. They include avoiding mixing of air streams in the server rooms and more efficient handling of existing hardware resources. “Any company aiming to qualify for Blue Angel certification must continuously monitor its energy consumption, establish an energy management system, prioritise energy efficiency when purchasing new products, and use renewable energy sources wherever possible,” says Jens Gröger.

As the next step, the Blue Angel criteria are now being revised to enable even more energy efficiency increases to be achieved. “The new Blue Angel will then set minimum standards for specific parameters, such as the efficiency of cooling technology and power supply, and server benchmarks,” says Jens Gröger. He is confident that the German Government’s pledge, in its Digital Agenda, to give greater consideration to sustainability when purchasing ICT products will give a major boost to the Blue Angel and therefore also to energy efficiency in data centres. “I anticipate that all public procurers will be guided by the Blue Angel when purchasing data centre services or setting up their own data centres in future,” says Jens Gröger.

Many other measures to enhance network and data centre efficiency are needed. In its study for the European Commission, the Oeko-Institut therefore makes a number of recommendations on environmental policy measures. “It is astonishing that there is currently a lack of policy measures to regulate data centres and telecommunication networks, even though their energy consumption is expected to increase significantly,” says Siddharth Prakash. In their study, the experts initially recommend improving the data basis, for there is a lack of publicly available data on the share of different data centre types and their energy consumption and key performance indicators for the telecommunication networks, for example. “Once we have these data, we will have a much clear picture of how these two sectors impact on the environment and the climate. The information will also help us develop an overall methodology to measure the carbon and energy footprint on a regular basis,” he says. One option is to establish a regular monitoring and reporting requirement for data centre and telecommunication network operators. According to the experts, the ensuing costs for major companies would be relatively low, as these companies presumably have a monitoring system in place already. Smaller companies, on the other hand, would have to set up this type of system. “The costs may be higher for these companies,” says Siddharth Prakash, “but in the long term, we believe that the potential savings and benefits will offset the costs.”

Larger, faster, better: the digital industry has already shown that this is feasible. More verifiable, more efficient and more sparing in its use of resources – that needs to be its next step. Christiane Weihe

Further information about the article
Contacts at the Oeko-Institut

Siddharth Prakash
Senior Researcher
Sustainable Products & Material Flows
Oeko-Institut e.V., Head Office Freiburg

Tel.: +49 761-45 295 244

Jens Gröger
Senior Researcher
Sustainable Products & Material Flows
Oeko-Institut e.V., Berlin Office

Tel.: +49 30-40 50 85-378

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