The IT Energy Challenge

By Sarah Sorensen
September 12, 2011

It is no secret we will need more energy over the next decades, a lot more. Demand for energy is predicted to grow 1.6 percent per year globally - although some predict demand will be on average more than 3.5 percent each year between now and 2025 - to meet the needs of the two billion more people predicted to be on the planet. Regardless of which numbers you subscribe to, the increasing demands on the energy grid do not show signs of abating, most likely outstripping supply in the not so distant future.

In the U.S. alone, electricity demand is expected to grow by 141,000 megawatts in the next decade, yet only 57,000 megawatts of new energy resources have been identified. And when you look at the state of reliable sources of energy in developing countries the picture is even grimmer; in many parts of the world, the energy grids are already close to maximum capacity. This "energy poverty" results in chunks of the population unable to engage in overall development and completely shut out from the digital world.

As more and more activities are transferred to the digital world it is inevitable the overall energy consumption of information technologies (IT) will grow and consume more. As IT attempts to keep up with the rapid pace of globalization, it continues to find its technology and power consumption needs growing at rates that are starting to outpace energy availability. By all estimates the energy consumption associated with powering this digital world is non-trivial. Today, it is estimated that ICT consumes up to 10 percent of the world's energy and is responsible for 2-3 percent of the world's CO2emissions.

How do you balance 10 percent of the world's energy consumption with technology's potential to push the boundaries and redefine the world as we presently experience it? How do you balance 3 percent of the world's emissions with a promise to connect and support opportunities on a scale that will improve our personal, business, and civic lives?

We need to begin by ensuring our solutions support energy efficiencies that far outweigh their ultimate consumption. Smart buildings, intelligent transport systems, and just-in-time supply chain management are just a few of the current efficiencies attributed to existing technologies that could result in carbon emission reductions, in the 15-40 percent range.

IT providers also need to take care of "their own house." We need to stabilize and ultimately reverse the energy consumption trend-lines of IT. To do that requires making sure the exponential growth in IT does not result in the exponential growth in energy consumption. In other words, we should be able to add capacity without adding a comparable load to the energy grid. It's a real trick because you need to efficiently draw energy, while minimizing heat generation all the while without compromising the performance, reliability, availability, and security of the technology.

Success can result in a smaller environmental footprint, as well as an operational one. In some cases, the energy it takes to operate these devices is teetering on or has already overtaken the cost of that device. For example, many businesses are finding they are paying more for electricity than bandwidth; the cost of the energy and the cooling required for a core router over five years is approximately 8 to 12 percent of the capital cost of the router, and the percentages go up for smaller routers.

When you consider 80 percent of almost any product's environmental impact is determined by decisions made in the design phase, those of us that are building products or developing the software running on those products need to rethink all our choices. We need to look at the lifecycle of IT and re-evaluate all aspects of our solutions, from the materials to the architecture, from the components to the processing, to ensure they are sustainable. Tackling the IT energy challenge is imperative if we are to truly serve our worldwide customers, and planet, long-term.

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