Sparks

Energy-hungry computers and digital sobriety

 By Eniday Staff

These days we are constantly on the go and travelling more and more. We sit in traffic, burning fuel, we get on the bus, we get on the underground, and so on. But there is an alternative to this constant to-ing and fro-ing on various modes of transport…

The most obvious example is smart working, where rather than using so much energy moving around, we can actually work from home, at the computer, exchanging data, writing emails, searching for information and holding meetings with our colleagues and superiors from the comfort and convenience of our own homes. The smart working concept has already been adopted in part by many companies, particularly larger ones, which have been digitising many of their functions for some time now. It is also set to become even more popular, coinciding with the gradually increasing use of the Internet, all of which saves vast amounts of energy.

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Smart working is set to spread with ever-growing intensity

But is there any truth behind this supposed energy saving, which sounds like a no-brainer? Not entirely, unfortunately, according to a warning issued in the last few days in a report produced by researchers at The Shift Project – a research group based in France that focuses primarily on the energy transition. Having examined the available literature, the researchers have reached a number of conclusions, not all of them positive.
The digitalisation of economic activity and the virtualisation of information have indeed led to improvements in terms of efficiency, speed and space, which almost always decrease the demand for energy. You only have to think of how many old paper records have now been replaced by new data management systems such as the cloud, for example. But the truth is that information systems also require ever-growing amounts of electricity not only to use but also to make.
Let’s look at a few figures. Worldwide IT operations account for around 4% of all of the energy used on a global scale. It doesn’t sound an awful lot, but the problem is that this figure is growing at a rate of nearly 10% a year. Similarly, the energy intensity of the sector, that is the amount of energy required to produce a unit of gross domestic product (how many kilowatt-hours it takes to make €1 worth of product, for example), is rising at a rate of 4% a year, as opposed to a drop of almost 2 percentage points where all other economic activities are concerned.

Predictions on global energy consumption 

The demand for electricity in the digital sector could reach 20% of the world’s total electricity production by 2025, whilst the energy required for computational activity alone (data centres, data management, file archives, etc.) could double by 2040.
By way of example, the energy consumed by modems and routers, both in domestic settings and by companies of all sizes, currently accounts for 1% of global demand for electricity, whilst the majority of major global operators in the sector are gradually transferring their data centres as far north as possible, where the climate allows them to save some of the energy that would otherwise be required to keep their huge servers sufficiently cool. This is true of Norway’s new Lefdal Mine Datacenter in Måløy, which still requires over 1,000MW in power.

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The Lefdal Mine Datacenter, consisted of six levels divided into 75 chambers with a potential white space area of 120.000 m2 (lefdalmine.com)

With all of this in mind, we can ultimately expect digital demand to continue to rise steadily, not least since even the calculation systems installed in the first driverless car prototypes require at least 2kW of electricity in order to function – around the same as a clothes iron left on constantly. But are there any remedies to this? According to the researchers at The Shift Project, yes, there are, and there is a lot we could be doing, starting with developing new technologies for producing computer equipment, improving energy production and transport networks and even streamlining the demand for electricity depending on usage and availability and developing widespread and efficient storage systems. Basically, it’s all about digital sobriety.

READ MORE: Technology, diversification and education by Roberto Iadicicco

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Eniday Staff