Digital economy using almost 10% of the world's electricity
Due to the increasing use of mobile data the digital economy is now approaching a tenth of the world's electricity use, according to a new report.
Carried out by technology investment and advisory firm, Digital Power Group, the report highlights how cloud computing services and the substantial data usage of a typical smartphone user is behind this significant energy consumption.
According to the report, the world's Information Communications Technologies (ICT) ecosystem uses about 1,500 TWh of electricity annually, equal to all the electricity generated in Japan and Germany combined and as much electricity as was used for global illumination in 1985.
This can be largely due to the energy intensity of smartphones using mobile data. For example, watching an hour of video weekly on a smartphone consumes annually more electricity in the remote networks than two new refrigerators use in a year.
The report explains that the growth in ICT energy demand will continue to be moderated by efficiency gains. However, the historic rate of improvement in the efficiency of underlying ICT technologies started slowing around 2005, followed almost immediately by a new era of rapid growth in global data traffic, and in particular the emergence of wireless broadband for smartphones and tablets.
The inherent nature of the mobile Internet, a key feature of the emergent Cloud architecture, requires far more energy than wired networks.
Recent changes in technology mean that current estimates of global ICT energy use, most of which use pre iPhone era data, are not accurate. "Trends now promise faster, not slower, growth in ICT energy use," the report states.
Iceotope CEO and spokesperson for the Chartered Institute for IT, BCS, Peter Hopton, believes that this report highlights the need for society to revaluate its data habits.
Hopton says: "A society in which we're constantly checking our Facebook status, uploading pictures or sending Tweets is...contributing to the climate change problem. Most people are simply unaware of IT's environmental impact, and this report just highlights the scale of what's being missed.
"The problem essentially boils down to data. Modern mobile users consume data at an alarming rate. It's not that particular mobile phone models aren't energy efficient, it's that we use these devices to access cloud computing services, and this 'always-on' IT culture requires huge data farms to be located around the country. Needless to say, these facilities require huge amounts of power to run and, on the most part, can be extremely inefficient," says Hopton.
The UK is believed to have the greatest concentration of these data centre facilities on the planet, consuming over 6.4GW of power per year, which is equivalent to six million British households.
Hopton adds: "There's nothing wrong with heavy data usage, and I am by no means suggesting we ban mobile data, God forbid. Instead, service providers must recognise the impact that this kind of data usage is having on the environment and make sure that the underlying infrastructure is stored in environmentally friendly facilities - particularly as savvy, modern consumers could potentially boycott those which aren't.
"The solutions to make these facilities green are available, it just takes a little effort from IT decision makers to implement them and it's down to the rest of us to make them sit up and take note," he says.
Last week, research by the Carbon Trust revealed that streaming on a smartphone or tablet, through mobile data, is the most carbon intensive way to watch the broadcast of a game.
Meanwhile, Google has estimated its carbon footprint per user and says it is equivalent, on a monthly basis, to driving a car for one mile.
The company believes that in serving an average user, it emits 8g of carbon per day. In making such a calculation, it is assumed that an active Google user is someone who does 25 searches, watches 60 minutes of YouTube a day, has a Gmail account and uses other Google services.