Our economy is digitalizing at a rapid pace. The Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, 5G, Virtual Reality, are all increasing data traffic. Global Internet traffic rose by nearly 40% between February and mid-April this year, according to figures from The International Energy Agency (IEA). Thanks to the growth in video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming, and social networking. The so-called ultra-fast chips in the newly-released iPhone 12 lead to less energy consumption at data centers or in the Cloud. Do these kinds of innovations represent the future in our increasingly digitalized world and our growing demand for data transmission?

“In the Netherlands, data centers use an estimated five terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity,” says Martien Visser, lecturer on Energy Transition & Networks at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen and Manager of Strategy at Gasunie (a major Dutch gas company). In total, the Netherlands uses around one hundred and twenty TWh. “Data centers in the Netherlands, therefore, use about 4% of all electricity.”

Energy transition

Visser has been working in the energy world all his life. Which is why he also took on the professorship a few years ago. “I want to help set up research into the energy transition at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences. His sub-topic focuses on the networks that distribute gas, electricity, or other forms of energy. As an avid twitterer, he demonstrates “how our energy system works ” through daily images and graphics.

Flat-lining

Despite the increase in data traffic, the energy consumption of the data centers is not soaring. This is reflected in figures from the IEA. The rise in Internet usage and the use of data centers increased exponentially from 2010 to 2019, whereas the consumption of energy appears to be almost a flat line.

“Many companies used to have their own data center on their company premises or in the basement, which is, of course, less efficient than if it is your core business,” says Judith de Lange, Digital Economy & Mainport policy officer at the Dutch Data Center Association (DDA). “Centralization has led to a lot of energy savings,” she notes. Data centers have the right type of cooling systems for all of their servers. As well as fire extinguisher systems, and backup power supplies.

Hyper-scale

Roughly speaking, there are two types of data centers. There are hyper-scale data centers owned by major tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook. For example, in the Netherland Google and Microsoft own a number of data centers. Recently, Google and Microsoft established themselves in the Wieringermeerpolder in North Holland. And there are colocation data centers: Commercial data centers that rent out their space and facilities to e.g. cloud providers, hosting providers, large (technology) companies, but also to banks, schools, hospitals, and government-run organizations.

The Netherlands has strict standards that data centers must comply with, De Lange stresses. “For instance, the ratio between the amount of power you direct to the servers and the amount of power you need for the cooling system. Data centers in the Netherlands are generally very energy-efficient.”

A report issued by the DDA shows that the total energy consumption of data and digital services – broken down by device, mobile network, and data center usage. An illustration shows that data centers consume a quarter, while 44 % of the total energy footprint is used by ICT in end-user devices. The rest can be attributed to data connections in the country.

Drive cars less

“People are critical of these data centers, although there’s much more involved in the digitalization of our economy that also requires electricity,” Visser asserts. “Electricity only accounts for one-fifth of our energy consumption,” he continues. “It’s quite likely that our electricity consumption will increase as a result of the use of data centers. But if we subsequently drive cars less because we are having more meetings online, our total energy consumption is bound to drop. Three things need to happen for the energy transition to succeed,” Visser makes clear:

  • “We need to change our behavior and hold meetings online,
  • we need to make appliances that are more energy-efficient, like more energy-efficient chips, and
  • we’ve got to produce more renewable energy through wind and solar power.”

A kernel of truth

On Sunday with Lubach which aired on October 11, an overly cozy relationship was exposed between the wind farm in the Wieringermeer and the Google and Microsoft data centers. Lubach is a well-known Dutch satirist who pointed out, amongst other things, how the green energy project in Wireingermeer was supposed to generate energy for the local community – but will now sell all of its energy to the planned data centers from Google and Microsoft.

“It is only logical that it sounds like that,” says Visser, “because the companies more or less explained it that way.” According to Visser, Lubach’s story is a “fine feat of exaggeration with a kernel of truth.” Every wind turbine producer receives a sustainable certificate (so-called Guarantees of Origin) for the electricity they generate, Visser goes on to clarify. “They can sell this to customers. That’s when they are able to declare that they have sustainable electricity. This means that we can also make our electricity consumption ‘greener’ at home.”

But in reality, the wind farm supplies electricity to the huge national grid, Visser goes on. Data centers get their electricity from that network. This is important so that computers can continue to run even when there is no wind. “So, production and usage are separate from each other. “

Data usage set to expand

We have to increase the sustainability of our energy consumption. Visser points out that if we use more of it, not only in the data centers but also in electrical transport, we will need more windmills and solar panels. “In response to Lubach, some people said that we should build fewer data centers or none at all in the Netherlands. In that case, fewer wind turbines would then be needed in the Netherlands too. But the use of data will continue to exist and will even keep on expanding.”

African data

“Maybe it’s not such a crazy idea to actually put those data centers in the Netherlands. They are safe here and everyone can be sure that data is stored securely,” Visser adds. But why does the Netherlands also have to supply the electricity for this? Visser wonders aloud whether we can’t negotiate a trade deal. “We could store African data and in return, they supply us with renewable energy. There is plenty of space in the Sahara for large-scale solar panel fields and it’s nice and sunny too.”

Nevertheless, this does not detract from the fact that we in the Netherlands have to use energy sparingly, Visser believes. “This also applies to data centers. In that respect, the development of ultra-fast energy-efficient chips is a great step towards a more sustainable society.”

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About the author

Author profile picture Corine Spaans is a writer. She is particularly interested in the stories of the people behind the innovations and has a passion for sport (innovation).