Eco Innovation

The six-fold surge in data centre energy consumption

1st April 2024
Sheryl Miles

The Internet, Cloud computing, big data analytics, AI, ML, the Internet of Things, e-commerce, VR – these are just a few of the digital technologies that rely on data centres.

Data centres are essentially warehouses filled with computer systems, and those computer systems are integral to our modern lives. They power everything from artificial intelligence (AI) applications to personal data storage on the Cloud, however, as the foray into Industry 4.0 continues, the energy demands put onto these data centres are set to increase dramatically, posing significant challenges and questions about sustainability and carbon neutrality.

Understanding data centres

Data centres are sophisticated facilities that store, process, and disseminate vast amounts of data. They house computer servers, networking systems, and storage devices that support the uninterrupted functioning of internet services, business operations, and communication networks.

With digital technology growing bigger and bigger, so too has the need for data centres escalated – facilitating the growth of online services, e-commerce, online gaming, and streaming platforms, among others.

The catalysts of growing demand

The proliferation of digital services, the boom in AI, and the advancements in quantum computing are primary drivers of the increased need for data centres. According to John Pettigrew, Chief Executive of the National Grid, via a LinkedIn post, the power consumption of these centres is expected to increase six-fold over the next decade, attributed to the energy-intensive nature of emerging technologies like AI and quantum computing.

This significant elevation in energy demands underscores the crucial role that data centres play in supporting large-scale computing infrastructures necessary for technological advancements.

Energy consumption

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in their annual electricity report that data centres consumed about 460 terawatt-hours (TWh) annually. This consumption is not insignificant, given its contribution to global electricity use and the associated environmental impacts.

The anticipated six-fold increase of energy usage by data centres, as forecasted by the National Grid, highlights the urgent need for sustainable energy solutions to adapt to the burgeoning demands of digitalisation while aiming for carbon neutrality.

Seeking carbon neutrality

The quest for carbon neutrality in the context of rising data centre energy consumption demands innovative strategies and bold actions. Pettigrew emphasises the ageing infrastructure of the UK's "supergrid" and the global need to upgrade energy networks to sustain higher electricity demand. This call for transformation aligns with the broader vision of decarbonising the economy and bolstering energy security.

Achieving net zero emissions by 2050, in line with global targets, necessitates a comprehensive approach that includes enhancing energy efficiency, adopting green energy, and investing in next-generation technologies that minimise environmental impact. Pettigrew's advocacy for a future-ready, capacity-rich, net zero grid vitally ambitious objective for accommodating the increasing constraints on the current “supergrid”.

The environmental imperative

As data centres become more central to our technological landscape, their environmental footprint—especially in terms of energy use—becomes a real concern. Studies have warned that the AI industry's energy consumption could rival that of entire countries within a few years.

This statistic, alongside the revelation that data centres in the Republic of Ireland, a hub for the European operations of several tech giants, accounted for nearly a fifth of all electricity used in 2022, illuminates the scale of the challenge and the necessity for the data centre industry to embrace sustainability as a core component of its operational ethos.

The trajectory of data centre energy consumption is on a steep incline, propelled by the advancements in technology and the global digital revolution. While data centres are indispensable to the digital economy, their environmental impact, particularly in energy use, presents a substantial challenge.

As the deadline to achieve carbon neutrality gets ever-closer, the need for a balanced approach that supports innovation whilst ensuring sustainability is absolutely necessary.

The journey ahead, as outlined by Pettigrew, requires a collaborative effort among industry stakeholders, policymakers, and the global community to secure a sustainable digital future.

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