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Where does the digital carbon footprint come from?

Every day, each of us uses the internet, at work or at home. We associate the digital world with something intangible, because the data that requires constant processing is out of our sight. However, everything we see on our computer screen takes place in physical server rooms that require power, and therefore energy.

Even before the pandemic, the greenhouse gas emissions of digital technology rivalled the airline industry. Back then, the web had more than 4 billion Internet users. Given the new times and the need to move one’s daily life online, that number is not going to shrink any time soon.

Hungry Data Centers

Every action we perform on the network in the form of a data stream flows through data centers and their server rooms. These consist of technical infrastructure (i.e. machines) and security mechanisms to prevent downtime and failures. In addition to the huge amount of energy required to continuously power the equipment, the room itself must be constantly ventilated and cooled. These factors and the fact that there are millions of data centers make up about 4% of the world’s electricity consumption.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of exact figures for specific electricity consumption. No official data has been produced on the subject, and operators are reluctant to provide information on their energy consumption due to security and competition concerns. Projections for 2030, based on server sales and survey estimates, assume an increase in consumption from 200 billion to as much as 3,000 billion kilowatt hours.

Green Data Centers

With today’s very rapid growth in digitization, reducing data center energy consumption should be a priority. There are several ways that vendors can consider to achieve this.

1.Changing the cooling method.

The simplest solution that first comes to mind is simply placing data centers in countries with cooler climates. This allows air to be blown in from outside instead of generating it on its own.

Another way to cool things down could be… hot water. The whole process involves direct heat dissipation through piped water, which is a great conductor of heat. No compressors are used to cool the liquid, only outside air cooling the heat exchangers. As a result, the cooling system is able to operate in an economical mode for a longer period of time, which translates into electricity savings.

2.Heat reuse

A side effect of servers is that they generate a lot of heat. It would be a good idea to reuse this heat, for example to heat nearby buildings. A leader in this topic is Sweden. The country relies heavily on district heating (i.e. using pipes) so it is relatively easy to feed waste heat from the centers into the grid and heat the connected apartments.

A similar solution is used by the Danish company Danfoss, which aims to become completely carbon neutral by 2022 and use waste heat to cover 25% of the total heat demand of their offices and factories by 2024.

3.Powering data centers with renewable energy

The most important aspect that will enable data centers to become completely carbon neutral will be the transition to clean, renewable energy. Unfortunately, most countries have minimal use of renewable energy so far. That’s why some companies are starting to focus more on generating their own energy – wind or solar.

Apple, for example, last year announced the construction of two of the world’s largest onshore wind turbines, a source of clean, renewable energy that will bring its supply chain and products one step closer to carbon neutrality. The energy produced will power Apple’s data center in Viborg, with surplus energy going into the Danish power grid.

The situation is serious

The digital carbon footprint should not be underestimated. We are all in some part responsible for the effects of rapid digital progress, showing a demand for ever newer technologies and high online activity. Certainly, the quickest way to reduce the energy we use would be to reduce our online activities, but a higly improbable one.

Progress will never move backwards. The whole world is not going to give up watching series on streaming platforms or their new phones with high-resolution cameras for a flip phone overnight. That’s why action on data centers is so important. Every innovation that limits their power is at a premium