We can’t go on this way
15 January 2015 | 0
This month’s issue of TechPro is forward looking in most respects. Not only have we a host of industry experts from vendors, distributors, resellers, integrators and service providers giving their opinions as to where ICT is headed this year, we also invited our main contributors to tell us what they see as the trends to watch.
There has been some uniformity in the identification of issues to watch in 2015, some new, some old. But there have also been a few interesting topics to note too, ones that may not have been on the top of the buzz word lists.
However, I would like to deviate slightly and focus on one issue in particular — power.
In 2013, coal accounted for 39% of power generated in the US, with natural gas at 27% and renewables combined at only 13%
I have written before about electricity generation and consumption with respect to the ICT industry, but it seems particularly timely as we emerge from yet another holiday season, to look at ICT in general and its usage of electricity.
Firstly, the current estimates are that cloud computing is at least the fifth largest consumer of electricity in the world, behind the US, China, Russia and Japan. This is based on figures from a 2012 Greenpeace International study called “How Green is your Cloud?”, and it is entirely possible that cloud computing has by the close of 2014 eclipsed Japan.
In the study, it does make the distinction that cloud computing includes telecommunications equipment, but not the entire ICT ecosystem. Still, as a guide, it gives a reasonable metric. But by way of comparison, a study called “Cloud begins with Coal” states that cloud computing now uses as much electricity as world lighting in 1985, or about 50% more than the aviation industry as a whole.
Looking at the consumer side of things for a moment, the same study points out that while a single charge for a tablet in negligible, watching an hour of video per week annually on such a device uses as much electricity, end to end, as two family fridges would in a year. This at a time when fridges are averaging one per household in the developed world, but video capable, Wi-Fi enabled devices are heading towards three per person!
But within cloud computing, data centres are major consumers of electricity, but within data centres, according to the “Cloud begins…” report, about two thirds of electricity goes on power and cooling, and electrical equipment such as batteries etc.
Telecommunications in general though, dwarf data centres in their power usage, by a couple of orders of magnitude.
Now, when demand and expected growth are taken into account, not only from consumers, but also around developments such as the Internet of Things (IoT), and there appears to be a perfect storm brewing in terms of demand. But the figures in terms of power generation are not in any way comforting.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2013, coal accounted for 39% of power generated, with natural gas at 27% and renewables combined at only 13%. With nuclear accounting for 19%, that means that well over two thirds of the US electricity generated was from some form of fossil fuel.
The next largest consumer, China, according to The Energy Collective, will still generate between 65 and 75% of its power from coal up to 2020. In 2013, according to various figures, about 390GW of China’s total of 1247GW was from clean renewable sources, including hydro, wind and solar, or just less than a third.
Demand and use
So the picture that emerges is a scary one indeed. The ICT industry is going to experience rapid growth across the globe, resulting in rising demand for energy. Energy generation has been shown to be one of the largest contributors to air pollution and, according to the World Health Organisation in 2014, air pollution results in around 7 million deaths per year.
This gives us a clear indication that the ICT industry cannot carry on in the way it has before. Power consumption on every level needs to be addressed, from compute, to networks, storage, power and cooling, and distribution. Learning lessons from the way that virtualisation revolutionised computing leading to the software-defined age, the industry must now press on and ensure that energy efficiency is pressed through each and every sector in the same way.
Not only that, the ICT industry must lead the way in developing and making available as freely as possible the intelligent control systems that allow all users, big and small, simple and sophisticated, to have visibility and control of their power usage.
But where the industry could possibly do most is in influencing the way that power is generated. It is all very well for a company to say that it gets its power from a renewable source, but with companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, HP, Dell, EMC and others, there is a duty to invest in new power generation technologies too.
There have been investments in the past on the order of tens of millions of dollars, such as Google’s RE<C Initiative of 2007. However that was short lived and abandoned as somewhat misguided by 2011. But when that is compared with the likes of Google’s Nest Labs acquisition for $3.2 billion, it puts things in perspective. I do not wish to single out Google here either, I believe that all the big tech companies should do more to invest in sustainable energy technologies, not just sourcing.
For example, a Microsoft announcement in 2013 of its renewable energy investment was a commitment to buy the output of a Texas windfarm for 20 years to power data centres. While this is admirable, I believe it does not go far enough, for any of the big tech companies.
The nature of consumption in the ICT industry in the near future is such that these companies need to invest in the development of sustainable energy technologies, not just the sourcing of renewable energy. By investment in the technologies behind wind, solar, wave and hydro, it will not only help the world to change its habits in sourcing but also increase its options, helping to improve not only the path of anthropomorphic climate change, but also directly reducing air pollution and providing sustainable paths to supporting development in developing nations.