Tech sector takes steps to reduce internet’s energy consumption

Tech sector takes steps to reduce internet’s energy consumption
Data servers. Credit: Canva

The internet requires a lot of energy to store, send and process information. Data centres require a lot of power, which is why the European Commission wanted to intervene and demanded that all data centres become CO₂-neutral by 2030 in the context of the EU’s Green Deal.

The construction of the first green data centre in Belgium has started in Zellik in the Flemish Brabant and the developers, including the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the UZ Brussel, will use the heat from the servers and rainwater to manage the building as sustainably as possible.

The new green data centre at Zellik will house the servers of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the UZ Brussel, but part of it will also be commercialised.

How the internet uses energy

A data centre is a building full of servers — computers that run to store information and make it available for internet traffic. Imagine it this way: by clicking this article, an internet browser will load the text, photos or videos that can be seen on it.

The browser receives blocks of information from a server, usually from quite a distance away, meaning it has to be on all the time. Electricity is then needed to send the blocks of information from that data centre to a computer and to have the information processed by the computer.

The same applies to all internet services: when videos are sent, they must be passed on from computer to computer. Some information may be stored on an external USB stick or memory card, or on the hard drive found in devices. But everything that is backed up or that is available online, such as emails, messages, and websites are stored somewhere on a server.

More often companies turn to data centres to store their data where they can rent a corner, so to speak, to have their servers set up. The data centre provides the power and cooling of those computers because computers that are on all the time give off heat.

The unique thing about the new centre in Zellik is that the heat will be fully used in the surrounding buildings. "The data centre was co-designed within the area development," said Jimmy Van Moer, Managing Director of the Green Energy Park. "It is not a wide building on a large field, but a tall one that is part of the entire Green Energy Park. We heat the buildings in the surrounding area."

On hot summer days, the heat produced is not directly useful, but even then the centre tries to work sustainably and circularly. The entire basement under the building is a storage place for rainwater so that there is enough water in dry periods.

How much energy does our digital life consume?

The available figures vary, but one thing is certain: the sector is growing strongly, and so are its CO₂ emissions. Moreover, the power consumption that goes to IT is much higher in Europe and the United States than elsewhere: up to a quarter of the total electricity consumption.

"About half of that is due to internet traffic, so sending information. The other half comes from the production of appliances," said IT professor Wim Vanderbauwhede of the University of Glasgow. It also takes a lot of energy to mine metals that are in phones, for example.

How can people make a difference at a personal consumption level? Watching fewer cat videos or less streaming on Netflix would be a good start. "Currently, 83% of internet traffic comes from video streaming," said Vanderbauwhede.

"It would also make a big difference if we don't always watch in the highest image quality. The difference between the highest resolution and slightly lower can hardly be seen with the human eye, but it makes a big difference to emissions."

Another simple thing to do is to use equipment for as long as possible. "For the end-user, 70 to 80% of the energy consumption has already happened during production before you have your device in your hands,” said Vanderbauwhede. “We should all be keeping our phones for about twenty years."

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