Data centres in the US alone are set to consumer electricity roughly the equivalent of 50 large power plants by 2020.
Luckily, some of the biggest companies responsible for the storage and transfer of this data have both recognised the scale of the problem and started taking positive steps to mitigate it.
Unsurprisingly, some of the technology involved is right at the cutting edge. Google, requiring a huge amount of energy to cool its servers, has developed an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system to predict temperature and pressure in data centres an hour ahead of time, before taking action to reduce energy consumption.
It's working. Consumption has been reduced by 40 per cent, leading to the company to look to roll out the AI system, seeking efficiencies in other technical areas of the business.
Data centres offer a huge opportunity for the integration of renewable energy – and an EU project, RenewIT, is looking at maximising this by creating an advanced simulation tool that can guide the IT industry towards informed choices on green energy.
The data giants have already seen the benefits and are stepping up their clean energy portfolios.
Google is investing heavily, while Apple has committed to ultimately running its data centres and offices 100 per cent renewable. Microsoft has set an early deadline for a big milestone: it has just committed to powering its data centres around the world with 50 per cent renewables by 2018.
The company's blog addresses the great irony of cloud computing driving energy, water and transport fuel efficiency while using massive amounts of energy in the process:
“As we begin to tap the power of the cloud to address these challenges, we must also ensure that we are building a responsible cloud. Tremendous amounts of energy will be required to power this data-driven revolution. The leading cloud companies have a responsibility to address this energy usage”
It's not just data centres using energy at alarming rates – our recent blog looked at how your smartphone apps are not as smart as you might imagine when it comes to energy efficiency.
In an article for Digital Trends titled The Best Smartphone is the One You Already Own, Douglas Rushkoff starkly drew out the numerous sustainability problems associated with the handheld devices that have taken over the world. On energy alone, he said:
“The Bauhaus elegance of an iPhone, for example, makes it feel as if the device’s primary functions are really occurring inside its new, water-resistant case...The lion’s share of processing activity – and energy consumption – is actually occurring on servers streaming all those videos and making all the harder calculations and analyses. That energy consumption is immense.”
The piece goes on to call for a renewed valuing longevity in our existing personal technologies rather than constant craving the new. It's a compelling argument - and as devices, data and its storage balloon, both companies and customers need to grow in consciousness of the consequences of the digital revolution.