IT’s significant impact on energy consumption and how renewable sources can help

Few would disagree that the IT industry was slow to realise the total impact of its massive energy consumption and consequent impact on carbon emissions. IT’s image as a “clean” industry — compared to traditional heavy industries such as manufacturing and mineral extraction — persisted well past the millennium, disguising an ever-increasing demand for power and a subsequent impact on resources.

In part, this was driven by technology trends in the industry – the proliferation of smaller, low-cost hardware coupled with greater connectivity gave rise to greatly expanded IT estates for organisations to manage.

Technology advances and rampant consumer demand also started to impact energy demand during the dot-com revolution. As home computing and mobile technology took off, the underlying infrastructure required expanding to meet requirements. As a result, CFOs started to pay closer attention to the energy expenditure line item on their balance sheets – a figure that seemed to head ever-upwards.

To add to these cost pressures, scientific evidence began to emerge on the impact of carbon emissions on the global climate, and the increasingly significant role IT and related activities played within this. With Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg estimating that two-thirds of the world’s population have yet to connect to the internet, this problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

The answer to reducing industry emissions, of course, is to reduce industry dependence on fossil fuels, and to improve the energy performance of the various electrical devices that make up the Internet of Things (IoT).

The latter is a huge subject area in and of itself, covering topics such as:

  • energy management software (which essentially reduces energy consumption by shutting down devices, or elements of them, when they are not required)
  • virtualisation (where one machine can be used to do the work of several that were previously required)
  • improved product design (whereby devices are engineered to draw as little power as possible to operate effectively).

The former has placed the requirement on the energy generation and supply industry to provide increased capacity and surety of supply in order to meet both consumer requirements and increased regulation from governments seeking to meet international climate change agreements.

The news here is encouraging, with wind and hydro-electric power now able to supply significant percentages of energy demand in many economies. In the UK, for example, renewable electricity accounted for 24.6 per cent of total generation (as measured using the European Union Renewable Energy Directive (RED) methodology, an increase of 2.3 percentage points compared to 2015, surpassing coal-generated power in the process.

Similarly, if less spectacularly, solar power has also become a significant player, particularly in warmer climes.  All of this has led to a more sophisticated approach to energy procurement in the IT sector. Energy consultants are now advising IT companies on their purchasing policies and procurements, with many clients now looking for evidence of emissions-friendly performance from their suppliers.

Finally, it should not be overlooked that while IT has been a significant part of the problem, it is also a key part of the overall solution to climate change. Without the power (forgive the pun) of IT, efficient management of energy generation and consumption will not be possible. Another challenge awaits!

Nick-Bloomfield-headshotNick Bloomfield is the Global SME for DXC Technology’s ISO 14001 certification programme and is a member of the Global Quality & Assurance Organisation. He has worked in the IT Industry for over 33 years and is a member of the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA). Nick lives and works in Milton Keynes, UK.


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