Françoise BerthoudDirector of EcoInfo (CNRS)
"In a world where every sector increasingly uses digital technology at every level and in an ever-growing number of processes, it is very difficult to evaluate total energy consumption."
The Digital Sector Is Energy-Intensive
Digital infrastructure, equipment and applications now account for a significant and rapidly growing portion of global energy consumption. Françoise Berthoud, Director of EcoInfo, a branch of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), reviews this trend and explores ways of controlling it.
In a world where every sector from housing to transportation, manufacturing and sales increasingly uses digital technology at every level and in an ever-growing number of processes, it is very difficult to evaluate total energy consumption. To be clear, we are talking about energy, not just electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... . This includes all the direct and indirect impacts of the activities associated with the extraction of the metals necessary for manufacturing equipment to the energy consumed by the giant data centers and routers that are needed to run the internet.
In terms of energy, the digital sector accounts for 3% to 4% of all consumption worldwide. But if the scope is narrowed to electricity, the figure rises to between 6% to 10%, depending on the study.
Digital technologies’ energy needs can essentially be divided into three parts: one larger part for terminal equipment including computers, telephones and other kinds of instruments, one part for data centers, and the smallest part for networks. But don’t be fooled by this last segment. Networks are not passive, like a gas pipelinePipeline used to transport gas over a long distance, either on land or on the seabed. . They include very active elements that underpin a number of systems (WiFi, GSM, etc.) and information flows. These consume a lot of energy and that amount is only increasing. Over 60% of consumption attributed to networks is from streaming and the ever-growing need for bandwidth is enormous. As everyone knows, we are watching more and more videos online.
Admittedly, there are also factors that contribute to a slowdown in consumption. It is possible that demand for smartphones and laptops has reached a plateau. Equipment is increasingly efficient and standards are tightening. Both companies and individuals want to reduce their spending on energy. But a steady stream of new connected objects is hitting the market and the digital sector has often experienced a rebound effect, well known among energy experts, whereby efficiency gains in equipment and processes are almost instantly offset by demand in new areas. A good example of this is the emergence of energy-saving light bulbs pushing consumers to buy more powerful light fixtures.
How to Reduce Consumption
The heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... generated by data centers has inspired a series of ideas. The first is to reduce the amount of energy used to cool servers. This can be done by using more outside air or geothermalDescribes the technology used to tap subsurface heat to produce energy... cooling to lower temperature without relying too heavily on air conditioning. The second option is to capture the heat produced by servers to heat buildings. There are a lot of ideas and trials underway but none that offer particularly convincing results.
Another option is to collectively engage in more “reasonable” behavior. The primary lever is to lengthen the life-span of equipment. On average, smartphones are discarded every two years. Doubling this time frame would represent significant progress. We are also still building oversized facilities to prepare for spikes in demand that may occur one day.
There is also an even more fundamental problem that goes beyond the behavior of individuals. I know I am going against current trends, but maybe we could think outside the box a little and stop making everything digital! There is a big push to integrate digital technology across the board, in both public and private services. If decision-makers make digital technology the bedrock of all administration, health, food, education, tourism, distribution and manufacturing systems, our societies will be weakened and less resilient. In the event of a structural problem, many things could collapse very quickly. There are numerous studies about hacking and system security but I have seen very few exploring the question of the long-term sustainabilitySustainability indicates a state that is sustainable or reasonably manageable over the long term. of these systems.
For example, there is uncertainty regarding production of the rare earth metals necessary for the digital sector. The pollution associated with the extraction of these metals, the impacts on water and the consequences of local conflicts have not yet been properly analyzed. Without being overly dramatic, these are issues that must be considered.
Françoise Berthoud is Director of EcoInfo (CNRS) and a computer scientist at Gricad, a research unit at Grenoble Alpes Recherche, which is involved in high performance computing and data (CNRS/Université Grenoble-Alpes/Grenoble INP).