As the world transitions towards a more sustainable future, the massive energy consumption and environmental impacts of data centers are increasingly coming under the spotlight. With the arrival of ChatGPT and other similar large AI systems, the astronomical compute requirements have led many to question the long term sustainability of distributed cloud-based projects. Data centers are fast approaching 2% of the world’s total energy consumption, and this figure is expected to rise in the coming years. However, the data and IT infrastructure industry has often been on the vanguard of sustainable and environmentally conscious business practices. Yet, we must consider if these trends will continue as we move into the future and business practices change.
While cloud infrastructure reduces the on-site impact of individual businesses, the energy consumption and environmental impacts associated with data centers cannot be ignored. Virginia’s Loudoun County houses one of America’s largest data center clusters. The combined energy consumption of this data cluster exceeded 320 MWh in 2020, driving further dependence on fossil fuel-based energy production in the region. This has led to protests from environmental organizations like Greenpeace as Loudoun County is expected to miss its annual targets for the reduction of fossil fuel consumption over the next 5 to 10 years as a direct result of this activity.
However, the industry is taking steps towards becoming more sustainable. Many data center operators, such as Switch, an American-based operator, and Norway’s Arctic Circle data center, boast 100% green energy usage. They achieve this in part by relying on local climate and environment features to provide cooling for their warehouses full of servers. Though, it should be noted that the environmental impact of these heat dissipation methods is not fully understood, these initiatives are a step in the right direction.
The IT sector is ahead of many other industries in its commitment to green energy infrastructure. As of 2015, the IT industry accounts for over 50% of worldwide green energy purchase agreements. Furthermore, Google is the largest single purchaser of renewable energy globally. This commitment not only makes the IT sector’s energy consumption greener but also drives innovation and investments into green energy for other sectors.
Efficiency improvements have also played a role in keeping energy consumption in check. Worldwide data center energy usage plateaued from 2016 to 2019, primarily due to more efficient cooling solutions and increased efficiency in data storage components. This is a positive sign, showing that the industry is focused on becoming more sustainable.
Despite these achievements, it’s essential to consider that energy usage has not plateaued in all regions. For example, Europe experienced an increase in data center energy consumption during the same period, accounting for over 2.7% of the EU’s total energy consumption. Legislative challenges like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) can also complicate the situation, forcing European providers to build data centers in locations that may not be ideally suited in terms of energy cost and environmental impact.
As businesses become more aware of their environmental responsibilities, many in the industry predict the emergence of job roles focusing on assessing the extended environmental impact of a company’s activities. This could lead to the development of Environmental Ops as a common place role in the future for most businesses.
The cloud and data center infrastructure industries are taking big steps towards sustainability, with some commendable progress in green energy adoption. While challenges remain, the continued focus on environmental concerns will likely maintain the data and IT infrastructure industry at the forefront of sustainable business practices. As governments and industries work together to address these challenges, we can hope for a more sustainable path forward even as our reliance on new and emerging technologies grows.
About Andrew OShei
An experienced engineer and developer of IOT, Robotics and Embedded solutions. In his previous work in the entertainment industry, Andrew has developed wireless control systems and automation solutions for audiovisual equipment and theatrical effects. Currently with SogetiLabs, he is developing IOT and Robotics platforms as well as edge computing solutions for deploying AI on low powered devices. He specializes in developing end-to-end solutions, including custom hardware, fabrication, mechanical and electronic design in addition to the firmware and software required to bring a project to completion.
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