Data centres and the environmental impact of our online world

Although online communication and data storage is better environmentally than its paper alternative, Aoife Kiernan outlines that data centres and internet usage still use a huge amount of resources

As we move to an increasingly online life, the environmental impact of increased internet usage often goes unnoticed. We use our laptops and phones, connected wirelessly to the internet with such ease, often not realising the large amount of infrastructure needed to keep us connected. In total, the internet uses around 2% of the world’s energy supply. If it were a country, it would rank amongst the top 5 highest electricity consumers.

“These data centres have a major impact on our environment due to the large amount of energy needed to run them and to cool them down.”

Organisations and individuals have moved away from storing data on-site in personal hard drives and instead opt to send it to the cloud. The abstract term “the cloud” originates in cloud symbols which were used in conceptual diagrams in the 1960s when explaining how the internet works. This data is actually held in hard drives in data centres, which can be as large as 30,000 square meters. These data centres have a major impact on our environment due to the large amount of energy needed to run them and to cool them down.

Data centres serve as the connection centres for the internet, containing servers and network infrastructure which are connected to computers all over the globe. They contain computing resources, running applications and housing the processing software for their applications. They store huge amounts of data, often including several backups. We all interact with these centres, from sending emails to streaming lectures and tv shows, to online shopping. Blackboard, Trinity’s virtual learning environment uses more than 30 data centres around the world.

“In the next few years, Ireland will have nearly 100 data centres in total.”

Ireland is establishing itself as the data capital of Europe. We are home to 54 data centres, mostly near Dublin. Additionally, there are 10 currently under construction, and planning permission granted for another 31. In the next few years, Ireland will have nearly 100 data centres in total.

Data centres are estimated to use 27% of the total electricity supply in Ireland by 2028. An individual centre uses the same amount of electricity as a small town. By 2030 Ireland aims to source at least 70% of power from renewable sources. At the same time €9 billion will need to be invested in new energy infrastructure to support the data centre expansion. Meanwhile, they will add at least 1.5 million tonnes to Ireland’s carbon emissions.

Around 40% of the power used is for cooling the equipment down. This is done using a variety of tactics, including using raised floors, computer room air conditioning and liquid cooling. Cooling can use large amounts of water and harmful chemicals.

Apple abandoned plans to build a centre in Athenry, Co. Galway in 2018 after repeated delays in the planning process. These delays were caused by an appeal due to environmental concerns which was eventually won in the Supreme court.

New technologies such as using artificial intelligence in cooling technologies can reduce the electricity consumption of the centres. A cooling system controlled by artificial intelligence can use sensors to determine where energy would be best spent to cool the system efficiently.

Some companies have promised centres powered 100% by renewable energy. Ireland’s first completely privately funded wind farm has been constructed by Amazon in Elk Co. Cork. They have plans to build two further wind farms in Ireland, one in co. Galway and another in Donegal. Irish company Echelon Data centres intend to construct an offshore wind farm to power a new data centre in Arklow, Co. Wicklow. These wind farms feed into Ireland’s national electricity grid and are intended to offset carbon emissions from electricity used by the data centres owned by these companies.

Tallaght District Heating Network will use excess heat from an Amazon data centre to heat buildings in the area. This will be provided for free, resulting in a low-cost low carbon method of heating. The heat will be provided to heat TUD’s Tallaght campus.

Trinity’s IT services operate one of the most efficient data centres in the world.”

Trinity’s IT services operate one of the most efficient data centres in the world. The Green Data Center in Áras an Phiarsaigh was presented with a National Tech Excellence Award in 2014. Several Trinity researchers are involved in a Science Foundation Ireland Project, Energy Systems Integration Partnership Programme (ESIPP). They are investigating a range of measures that could be used to decarbonise the energy system in Ireland.

With data centres being classed as essential infrastructure, Ireland must invest in the electricity grid to increase supply adequately and power the additional centres that are planned. Any unprecedented increase in energy demand will make carbon emission reduction targets more difficult to reach. With every additional data centre, the likelihood of reaching 70% renewable energy by 2030 decreases.