Web and Climate Change

Jan 13, 2017 | written by:

Believe it or not, when you upload a video to YouTube you may be doing more harm to the Earth's climate than when you fly in an airplane. Every minute, 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. This, like everything else on the internet, requires big servers to process the data located around the world, sometimes in small rooms and sometimes in huge "data farms" the size of 15 football fields. Together they use up around 420 terawatt hours of electricity a year, about 3% of the world's electricity supply and now account for about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And this figure could increase by 300% by 2026, according to the researchers from the University of Leeds in England. Why does this server activity use so much energy? They run 24/7, they need adequate infrastructure to be hosted avoiding their overheating.

It’s Greenpeace to take care and control the situation both for consumptions and solutions activated by the big players in this field, drawing up its annual click clean report, which ranks tech companies on their environmental performance. Google is in the top place (followed by Amazon and Facebook) that by 2017 plans to power 100 percent of its global data centers with renewable energy (currently still at 44%). For Google the higher costs are the needs of electrical energy required to activate its cooling and exhaust systems to prevent the general overheating. Other good news, the renewable energy costs are dropping considerably, allowing to be bought with long-term contracts and pricing for the next 10/20 years.

A step liked, but that doesn't address the root of the problem: the massive increase in internet activity. There are only two ways to solve this problem: force people to cut down on internet use, or change the way data is processed. The first seems to be little feasible but the second would lead such good results. If only United States start use available best practices, combined with a shift from local data centers to more efficient cloud computing centers, could cut data center energy usage by 45 percent by 2020.

Another solution to reduce energy consumption is to move the servers to colder climates, where less effort is needed to cool down the servers. Facebook has recently opened a 84-acre data center in the north of Sweden, 70 miles from the Arctic Circle, and so did Apple, investing 1.7 billion euros to build new cloud-based data centers in Denmark and Ireland. 

Meanwhile that all companies start to adopt more sustainable systems, a perfect solution to which little is thought would be to use the heat generated by the servers for district heating. Last month in November, energy company Fortum and Ericsson signed a collaboration agreement on utilizing the waste heat of Ericsson's data center, located in the town of Kirkkonummi in Southern Finland, for district heating. It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about data centers, but the choice between throwing that heat away into the atmosphere, or delivering it to nearby homes through district heating networks is an easy one. 

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