The Internet Cloud Has a Dirty Secret
The music video for “Despacito” set an Internet record in April 2018 when it became the first video to hit five billion views on YouTube. In the process, “Despacito” reached a less celebrated milestone: it burned as much energy as 40,000 U.S. homes use in a year.
Computer servers, which store website data and share it with other computers and mobile devices, create the magic of the virtual world. But every search, click, or streamed video sets several servers to work — a Google search for “Despacito” activates servers in six to eight data centers around the world — consuming very real energy resources.
A lot of them.
Today, data centers consume about 2% of electricity worldwide; that could rise to 8% of the global total by 2030, according to a study by Anders Andrae, who researches sustainable information and communications technology for Huawei Technologies Ltd.
U.S. data centers consumed 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2014, the same amount that 6.4 million American homes used that year. Data centers need electricity to power their servers, storage equipment, backups, and power cooling infrastructure; most servers require temperatures below 80 degrees Fahrenheit to operate, and cooling can comprise up to 40% of electricity usage in conventional data centers.
“People don’t think about the backend consequences of Netflix streaming,” says Debra Tan, the director of Hong Kong-based nonprofit China Water Risk. “The information and communications technology (ICT) sector is probably one of the most power-hungry sectors going forward.”
The global shift toward what Tan calls “cloud-based societies”—and the rise of nascent tech like 5G networks, robotics, artificial intelligence, and cryptocurrencies—means electricity consumption in data centers will keep surging.
Data’s massive carbon footprint
Because servers are housed in nondescript data centers rather than factories with billowing smokestacks, the size of their carbon footprint is easily overlooked.
But the constant and increasing demand for connectivity means ever more energy funneled into these data centers, and much of that energy is non-renewable and contributes to carbon emissions. Data centers contribute 0.3% to global carbon emissions, according to Nature; the ICT sector as a whole contributes over 2%, and those numbers could increase.
The U.S. is home to 3 million data centers, or roughly one for every 100 Americans. A large number are clustered in Loudoun County in northern Virginia. Tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google operate data centers there, and county officials claim that 70% of the world’s Internet traffic flows through the area’s data centers.
Only 12% of Amazon’s Loudoun County data centers and 4% of Google’s are powered by renewable energy, despite their pledges to shift to 100% clean energy, according to Greenpeace. The region’s low commercial electricity rates make it an attractive site for power-guzzling data centers.
Debra Tan of China Water Risk says that American tech firms with a global presence like Google and Facebook must step up their existing commitments to clean energy, as must Chinese tech companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, which sourced 67% of their energy from coal in 2017. China’s data center industry is the world’s second-largest, comprising 8% of the global market.
“The ICT sector can definitely lead the world in aggressive decarbonization because they’re the sector that will add on the most power going forward,” says Tan. “They have the capability [and] they have the scale.”
The data never ends
The Internet’s “never-ending creation of data” explains why electricity demand in data centers will likely surge in the future, says Huawei researcher Anders Andrae, who cites more advanced video, 5G networks, A.I. training, holography, and cryptocurrency mining as some of the drivers.
The energy consumption of Bitcoin mining has been a concern for many watching the rise of cryptocurrencies, and analysts have said Bitcoin mining consumes around 0.3% of global electricity (some skeptics argue that such estimates are exaggerated, however).
In China, the government is starting to crack down on the practice. Authorities in China’s Inner Mongolia province said earlier this month that they will no longer support the crypto mining industry, though they did not issue an official ban.
Inner Mongolia’s cheap electricity, thanks to a wealth of coal, is what first drew crypto miners to the far-flung province. In China, data centers get 73% of their power from coal and 23% from renewable sources. The country’s clean energy industry is still developing, so there is a lack of infrastructure compared to coal-powered sources, which are relatively cheap and abundant—China accounts for half of global coal consumption.
China’s data centers emitted 99 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 and will emit two-thirds more by 2023 unless industry addresses its energy consumption, per a 2019 study by Greenpeace and North China Electric Power University.
Ye Ruiqi, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia, says that the initiative to move the industry towards renewable energy “must come from internet data center companies themselves.”
“We need to start addressing the carbon emissions and air pollutants associated with the source[s] of power that feed into our data centers.” Ye says, noting that a handful of Chinese companies have started shifting to renewables and “the results are promising.”
While consumers can make some daily changes to their consumption—streaming Netflix on medium quality rather than high-definition could save over 75% of carbon and water used—companies and governments must take the lead in the greening of the supply chain and development of renewable energy infrastructure, says Tan.
“We can get more efficient […] but our demand is also going to go up,” Tan says. “Your best bet is to go 100% renewables for the backend, cloud, all the transmission towers, et cetera. If you can get that infrastructure to green then there’s less pressure to curbing demand.”
It will be difficult, but if the sector takes action to shift from coal to renewable energy, electricity consumption can decouple from carbon emissions, Ye says: “Technology innovation doesn’t have to contradict [sustainable] development.”
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—China is the world’s biggest coal user. Can it break the habit?
—How the energy industry is using data to decarbonize itself
—Why solar execs say the game is already over for non-renewable energy
—BP’s CEO says he’ll sell oil projects to meet Paris climate accord goals
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