Allaying fears that energy consumption would increase manyfold as the world uses more and more data, new research has found that massive efficiency gains by data centres have kept energy use roughly flat over the past decade.
Filled with computing and networking equipment, data centres are central locations that collect, store and process data. As the world relies more and more on data-intensive technologies, the energy use of data centres is a growing concern.
Could offset gains on reduced carbon emissions
It has also been argued that higher energy consumption by data centres could offset the gains on reductions on carbon emissions due to increased use of digital technology and paperless transactions.
"Considering that data centres are energy-intensive enterprises in a rapidly evolving industry, we do need to analyze them rigorously," said study co-author Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, US. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is a US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science laboratory managed by the University of California.
"Less detailed analyses have predicted rapid growth in data centre energy use, but without fully considering the historical efficiency progress made by the industry. When we include that missing piece, a different picture of our digital lifestyles emerges," Shehabi said.
Model of global data centre energy use created
For the study published in the journal Science, the researchers developed a detailed model of global data centre energy use. "While the historical efficiency progress made by data centres is remarkable, our findings do not mean that the IT industry and policymakers can rest on their laurels," said lead researcher Eric Masanet from Northwestern University in Illinois, US.
"We think there is enough remaining efficiency potential to last several more years. But ever-growing demand for data means that everyone -- including policy makers, data centre operators, equipment manufacturers and data consumers -- must intensify efforts to avoid a possible sharp rise in energy use later this decade," Masanet said.
The researchers integrated new data from numerous sources, including information on data centre equipment stocks, efficiency trends, and market structure. The resulting model enables a detailed analysis of the energy used by data centre equipment (such as servers, storage devices and cooling systems), by type of data centre (including cloud and hyperscale centres) and by world region.
Investments in the elimination of blindspots a good idea
The researchers concluded that recent efficiency gains made by data centres have likely been far greater than those observed in other major sectors of the global economy. "Lack of data has hampered our understanding of global data centre energy use trends for many years," said co-author Jonathan Koomey of Koomey Analytics.
"Such knowledge gaps make business and policy planning incredibly difficult," Koomey said. The researchers also urged policymakers to increase research and development investment in next-generation computing, storage and heat removal technologies to mitigate future energy use, while incentivising renewable energy procurement to mitigate carbon emissions in parallel.
The policymakers should also focus on investing in data collection, modelling and monitoring activities to eliminate blind spots and enable more robust data centre energy policy decisions, said the researchers.