IEA EBC insights: Big data doesn’t have to mean big energy 27 April 2022

By Julianne Tice

We each use data centres – albeit indirectly – every day. If you’re reading this article, it’s coming to you via data stored in a cloud-based data centre.

Data centres are at the heart of the digital transformation globally. They provide data storage, processing and transport services which are required for essentially any internet function. The ability for many of us to pivot to working from home as a response to COVID in 2020 relied on the internet and video conferencing software, which in turn rely on information transmission through data centres. 

Data centres may seem innocuous, but they can be significant energy consumers. In 2020, data centres – excluding those used for cryptocurrency mining – used an estimated 200-250 TWh of electricity globally, which accounted for about one per cent of global electricity consumption. 

As an example of just how much energy is being consumed in data centres, energy consumption from Facebook’s data centres has increased by 40 per cent each year from about 1.5 TWh in 2015 to 7 TWh in 2020. Not only does this prove that increased data often goes hand in hand with increased energy usage, but it also proves that the site is very much not obsolete, and in fact is very much increasing in popularity. Take that Gen Z! 

Of course, data centres aren’t the only ones to blame for electricity consumption and associated emissions when you use the internet. In many cases, data transmission and the devices used account for more electricity consumption than the data centre itself. And the associated emissions depend on your location and the mix of electricity sources used to power your device. 

Improvements in energy efficiency have helped curb the amount of energy consumed by data centres through:

  • Improved efficiency of IT hardware;
  • Shifts from enterprise data centres – those housed and operated by an individual organisation – to cloud and hyperscale data centres; and
  • Reduced power consumption during idle periods and for cooling of servers.

Source: IEA 2021, Data Centres and Data Transmission Networks

However, ever increasing demand for internet services may negate many of the gains made through efficiency improvements. 

For those into cryptocurrency, despite extreme efficiency gains in the hardware used for Bitcoin mining – an increase in efficiency of over one million times has been achieved in the last decade! – Bitcoin mining now uses 140 TWh of electricity per year. This is more than double the data centre electricity consumption from Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook combined. Think about that next time your kids are counting their Bitcoins and harping on about the future being crypto. 

So, what can be done about all this energy consumption? 

Regulations around energy efficiency in data centres around the world are limited, but attention to this issue seems to be increasing. 

The Building Energy Codes Working Group (BECWG) under the International Energy Agency Energy in Buildings and Communities (IEA EBC) Programme recently released a new report, International review of energy efficiency in Data Centres for IEA EBC Building Energy Codes Working Group. The report presents a review of international policies, standards and issues relating to energy efficiency in data centres, and suggests possible policy approaches to balance the economic and strategic benefits of data centres with managing their energy use. A webinar co-hosted by the Energy Efficiency Council and the BECWG explored the findings of the report and the state of data centre energy efficiency around the world. 

In the United States, a handful of states – including Washington and California – have introduced energy codes for data centres. At the Federal level, efforts were introduced in 2010, but were cut back quite significantly in 2019.  

Internationally, efforts include:

  • Minimum energy performance standards (MEPS), as in the European Union;
  • Energy efficiency schemes, as in the Netherlands; and
  • Voluntary labels, as in Australia (NABERS for Data Centres) and other jurisdictions including Hong Kong and Germany. 

As stated in the international review report, the variety of sizes, operational models and usage of data centres means that no one single policy option will be able to effectively address the impact of data centre energy consumption. Policy measures identified in the report include:

  • Mandatory disclosure of energy performance of data centre operations, with reporting of ratings required within government or declared publicly;
  • Adoption of minimum energy performance standards (MEPS) for servers and data storage through existing legislative frameworks, for example Greenhouse and Energy Minimum Standards (GEMS) in Australia; and
  • Setting building code requirements for HVAC equipment or mechanical loads and electrical losses, which some US states have already implemented.

This is far from the full list, and indeed a range of policy options exist for jurisdictions wishing to tackle this growing issue. Indeed, with the global community committed to achieving net zero emissions by mid-century, each country will need to get its head out of the clouds – and into the cloud – to reduce its data centre-related emissions.

If you’d like to learn more about data centres and energy efficiency, you can read the international review report here and watch the webinar here

Julianne Tice is a Senior Project Officer at the Energy Efficiency Council. She has delivered residential energy audits and energy efficiency programs in the charity and for-profit sectors in the US and Australia, and currently conducts research and helps push the policy agenda forward for energy efficiency in buildings for the EEC. You can connect with Julianne on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter.

This article was originally published in the April 2022 edition of Efficiency Insight.