Global IT energy use ‘will be as big as USA by 2040’

When you think computing or IT, think carbon, says expert from Schneider Electric

Festival Net Zero 2021

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Kevin Brown is a smooth-talking American. We chat on zoom in a relaxed manner but the Senior VP of Schneider Electric’s Secure Power Division drops a bombshell at the start of our conversation.

“By 2040 edge computing alone might be 3200 TWh (Terawatt Hours) of energy consumption, that’s like 275 million households bigger than the US, so it’s a massive challenge in managing the carbon footprint that’s coming,” he says.

Edge computing? Power consumption of TWh? What’s he on about?

Well, it’s simple, the role computers and IT have and will increasingly have, on our global energy use and how that’s an area that has to be tackled if we are to get to net zero.

Kevin is my age and we recall the simple computers of the early 80s, using modem dial-ups and computer tapes. No one thought about the energy use of computers back then and it wasn’t until the 2010s that the IT industry looked at it either.

“Within the last ten years, you saw the big data centre guys worrying about their electrical footprint. Partly due to business reasons, electrical costs were a cost driver for them. But also the industry got the attention of Greenpeace.

“Where Greenpeace started saying these things are ‘dirty clouds’. And that really woke up the industry in my opinion.”

Processing costs

That negative publicity shifted a gear change in server farms and IT in general. Soon they were all building wind farms and cutting back on energy use.

“Our models show they’ve eliminated about 80% of the waste. The big data centres are quite efficient in the overall scheme of things today,” he tells me. So how much energy is IT using? No one really knows but Schneider Electric has done some analysis and put forward an educated guess.

“Our numbers show it’s about 500 TWh being consumed by the industry today. That’s a significant amount of energy. We believe that’s about between 2-5% of the total energy consumption on the grid globally. And that’s after a decade of huge efficiency gains!

That 500 TWhrs by the way is larger than the electricity produced by the UK last year (323TWh) and so even now IT is a huge consumer of energy globally. Kevin is certain as we have more distributed computing, working from home etc, the demand away from server farms and data centres, to the so-called edge computing sector will mean demand will rise exponentially.

“That 3200 TWh is purely the energy running costs,” he tells me. “It doesn’t account for embedded carbon, it doesn’t account for the full use cycle which is very difficult to calculate.”

So what’s the solution? How to cut this use when we know we will all use computers more?

Partly it’s more technology. Removing greenhouse gases like SF6, using lithium-ion batteries and liquid cooling, a way of reducing the heat used by processors and server banks.

“If I can extend the life of a piece of equipment that lowers its carbon footprint. If we can find a way to make liquid cooling very practical, carbon-friendly, easy to maintain, that technology could drop the overall power consumption by 15% on its own.”

Size doesn’t always matter

We talk through the things we can do now however, one of which is making sure you’re not over scoping your IT needs and using more storage or processing that you actually need.

“Our industry is built on a 42 U (a size of rack unit about 2m tall). A 42U is the basic building block. But in most installations, especially how computing’s progressed, you actually don’t need that much space.

“And if you have that wasted space that’s bad for your carbon footprint in general. So spend more time planning the size and fit you need and operate and design this with efficiency in mind.”

He also talks about new ways of running IT, with smart maintenance contracts which predict when outages may happen. Then there’s the circular economy idea, of building a bit of kit with its end of life in mind. Schneider is already doing this.

“So we are designing the products now, so we can easily reuse the pieces and parts. In three years we went from 40% to 60% recycling, so not only are we bringing it back but we are making sure we can make use of it again.”

It’s all about the Carbon

But at the end of it all for Kevin, our value of the energy consumption of IT and computing comes down to the same thing as all conversations around net zero. Placing a value on the cost of carbon.

“Pretty much everyday I turn on the news and I know what a barrel of oil costs. But nobody can tell me what is society valuing the price of carbon?

“There’s been this approach well that’s kind of a government thing. But companies can start putting a value on carbon themselves. In fact, Schneider does, in our annual report, it’s 30 Euro per tonne in the short term and 130 Euro per tonne long term.

“If I look at the cost of IT and if there’s a benefit to upgrading your IT to get greater efficiency. We don’t calculate the carbon in the benefit.

“If you put a price on carbon I can give you a calculator and you can add that and adjust your cost appropriately. That kind of puts in a positive incentive to do upgrades and get efficiencies. And do the right thing because you see the benefits in the financial models.

“It’s an incentive to lower your carbon footprint and drive efficiencies.”

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