Energy efficiency

IT energy consumption lower than previously claimed

Archana Venkatraman

The average Briton spends only about 0.5% of their daily energy consumption on internet services, including everything from accessing the datacentre to using mobile devices, a study has found, debunking the myth that surging demand for consumer IT is hurting the environment.

A previous study, carried out earlier this year by the Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET), summarised that access networks, not datacentres, are the biggest threat to the sustainability of cloud services. “This is because more people are accessing cloud services via wireless networks, and these networks are inherently energy inefficient,” the study stated.

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Datacentres are only part of a much larger cloud computing ecosystem. The network itself, and specifically the final link between telecommunications infrastructure and user device, is “by far the dominant and most concerning drain on energy in the entire cloud system,” according to the CEET study.

“Our energy calculations show that by 2015, wireless cloud will consume up to 43TWh (terawatt hours), compared with only 9.2TWh in 2012 – an increase of 460%,” it stated.

This means an increase in carbon footprint from six megatonnes of CO2 in 2012 to up to 30 megatonnes of CO2 in 2015.

Online activities have little impact on carbon footprint

However, more recent research by industry body ESP KTN has debunked this myth. It found that households are actually using far less energy to maintain their digital lifestyles than originally thought.

The research assessed the energy cost of internet mediated transactions, such as downloading an album from iTunes or streaming a film.

The network, and specifically the final link between telecommunications infrastructure and user device, is by far the dominant and most concerning drain on energy in the entire cloud system

CEET study

“Energy consumed in networks is utterly inconsequential to the energy consumed at the datacentre and the energy consumed in the home (for general cloud services),” wrote the ESP KTN study’s authors, Paul Krause and Kate Craig-Wood.

When looking at UK users’ daily carbon use, the average home broadband usage is 23GB per month, which equates to 2,000Wh (watt hour) per day based on the laptop user model. The average Briton consumes 195,000Wh per day of energy, and there are on average 2.3 people per household, so online activities account for perhaps 0.5% of our total energy footprint. 

“The energy of our online lives is inconsequential compared to the great benefits to society,” wrote Krause and Craig-Wood.

Craig-Wood conducted this research as part of her PhD looking at cloud computing in relation to climate change. She said the study has clearly demonstrated that IT is not the enemy.

“A typical Briton spends 0.5% of their daily energy consumption on internet services, including everything from the datacentre to the laptop. Given that ICT is expected to save 16% of societal emissions by 2020 and the sector already contributes 10% to GDP, the climate impact of our industry is clearly not a significant concern at this stage," she said.

Digital media replacing physical media

The study found that energy consumed in transferring data from a regional datacentre to a user is 1592Wh/GB.

“This is significantly lower than earlier published estimates, but this difference can be accounted for by efficiency gains over the last seven years,” said Krause.

Online activities account for perhaps 0.5% of our total energy footprint

ESP KTN study

“We are seeing a massive growth in the use of wireless networks for music and video streaming and downloading. But this is replacing the purchase and use of physical media, which is a much more energy-intensive activity,” he added.

As the consumer appetite for digital content grows, commentators have expressed fears about the environmental impact this surging demand for media consumption is creating, both in housing this data in datacentres – for example, Facebook alone handles 300 million photo uploads per day – as well as in consuming this data through cloud services via mobile devices.

But on the contrary, households are using less energy as digital content consumption grows, the latest study has shown.


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