Digital Infrastructure Part 1: Energy

The internet is big, and it is growing bigger.

What happens every 60 seconds on the internet in 2019
Source: Lori Lewis / Chadd Callahan

This is what happens on the internet every 60 seconds, and it is but a tiny snapshot of everything that happens.

Our digital lives are becoming increasingly dependent on this network, but this is having an increasing physical impact too. Alongside the visible infrastructure that crisscross the surface of our planet, an invisible digital infrastructure is growing in parallel, through the air, under the oceans and beneath our feet.

In this article we will explore some of the increasing impacts of our digital lives, the future challenges they pose, and the solutions that might address them.

Digital engines

Hidden in basements, industrial parks and far-away places are the data centres that power our digital lives.

Caption: A common impression of a data centre
Source: Adobe Stock Photos

There are essentially two types of data centers:

  • Enterprise data centers generally privately owned and operated by a single organization. This could range from a server room in an office to a large banking data center.
  • Co-location data centers are larger commercial facilities that rent out their space, power, and network connections for other organizations’ own hardware. A sub-set of this is Managed Service Providers (MSP) who own the building and hardware to sell their services, often hosting cloud computing applications. The largest ‘hyper-scale’ data centers are run by the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple, and form the backbone of everyday digital services.

To the untrained eye, they are simply rows of computers (servers) stacked in an industrial space. To the trained eye, these are critical assets protected from human and environmental threats by multiple layers of security, and guaranteed by rooms of batteries and generators to stay online for days if the power ever went out. When data centres host our global communications, our financial industry and our governments, down time is not an option.[i]

But what is the cost of being online 24/7?

Energy demand

Data centers consume a lot of electricity. The average EU co-location facility will consume the equivalent electricity of 2,100 UK households,[ii] and there are an estimated

  • 2,000 co-location
  • 60,000 enterprise
  • 150 managed service provider

data centers in Europe.[iii] By 2020, these will consume more electricity than the combined consumption of all the households in the UK.[iv]

Some projections show that combined global Information Communication Technology (ICT), which includes data centers, networks, consumer devices and their manufacture will consume a fifth of world electricity by 2030… and generating electricity almost always means burning fossil fuel.

By 2020, the combined annual carbon emissions of EU data centres will be around 26 million tonnes[v], equivalent to approximately 11 million economy class return flight seats from London to New York.[vi] Unsurprisingly, some think that global emissions from ICT are already exceeding global aviation emissions[vii]

So why is this growing so quickly?

Projection for global data centre electricity consumption
Source: Nature (infographic) Anders Andrae (data)

For some government services, the average [financial] cost of a digital transaction is almost 20 times lower than the cost of a telephone transaction, about 30 times lower than the cost of postal transaction and about 50 times lower than a face-to-face transaction. [viii]

Digital Efficiency Report –

The cost of doing things online offsets the greater cost of carrying out tasks physically, and the technology that allows this has fallen drastically in price as well.[ix]

Cheaper tech means more devices, but not only are there more, they are all talking to each other. Since its inception in 2009, the Internet of Things (IoT) has exploded in volume and complexity. Accessories, appliances, vehicles and smart buildings are just a few of the things that that already comprise the billions of devices worldwide. By 2020, there may be 6 connected devices for every person on this planet[x], all requiring ever faster, reliable and capable networking capabilities from the internet.

With this level of sustained growth, what can be done to prevent our energy consumption spiralling out of control?


Efficient data centres

Within a data centre, the biggest energy consumers are the servers and building services. Since reducing consumption reduces cost, the issue of energy efficiency in data centres is a major priority for operators.


New servers are constantly being developed by manufacturers providing more processing for less power, and older servers are typically replaced when the life cycle cost of keeping older servers outweighs the cost of replacing them.[xi]

Like a car idling at a junction, servers still use electricity when idle (as much as 50% of peak power[xii]) so a working server is an efficient one. This is very difficult to manage with sporadic demand however, and average server utilization (% time spent working) can be very low. To combat this, server virtualization can be applied where many services are run on a few machines to ensure that idle time is minimized.

Building services

A room full of servers generates a lot of heat. Some data centers may use as much electricity cooling their servers as the servers use themselves, so it is equally important to have efficient cooling, which can be achieved by:

  • Separating cold intake air and hot exhaust air inside a data center to prevent recirculation and mixing
  • Using a water-based cooling system
  • Using filtered fresh outside air when temperatures are cool enough (free cooling)

New technology such as liquid cooling (where servers are submerged in liquid coolant) and even underwater data centers that expel heat directly into the ocean[xiii] are exploring more radical ways to deal with the heat problem.

With such methods, efficient data centers may only use a fraction of the energy normally needed for cooling.

A bank of free cooling fans in Facebook’s Lulea data center
Source: Data Center Knowledge
Microsoft’s Natick project – the world’s first underwater data centres. Source: Microsoft

Waste heat

Waste heat usually goes straight outside… but it has also been used to heat homes, swimming pools and greenhouses[xiv]. Due to the limitations of piping it over long distances, many of these projects have tapped into existing district heat networks or were used for adjacent buildings. As these networks develop, so more opportunities will arise for the re-use of waste heat.

Digiplex’s new Stockholm data center will heat thousands of homes. Source: Data Centre News

A cleaner grid

Reducing energy consumption is well and good, but until grid electricity is totally renewable data centers will always leave a large carbon footprint. Powering one with totally renewable energy right now means either placing it near an abundant supply, or building it yourself.

Facebook is one company doing both. Its newest data center in Sweden is powered by local hydroelectricity, and uses abundant free cooling throughout its operation.[xv] In the US where the grid is not so clean they have committed to building enough renewable capacity to match all current and future energy consumption by 2020.[xvi]

This is no small undertaking. Topaz Farm in California is currently the world’s largest solar farm, generating 550 megawatts and comprising of 9 million solar panels stretching over an area of 9.5 square miles. [xvii] For Facebook to meet its renewables commitment of 3,000 megawatts, they would need to build the equivalent of six of these.

The reality is that few operators can choose where to build their data centers, and fewer still have the means to build enough capacity to generate a meaningful contribution. However, as renewable energy continues to become more competitive, buying clean energy on a large scale is an increasingly sound business choice[xviii] which will help to drive further growth in this sector.

Topaz Farm, California. Facebook needs six of these to cover their data centre
Source: IFL Science

Towards a greener internet

There is no doubt that digital services have transformed our world, and have offset countless physical journeys and transactions. It is vital however, that the burden of our impacts is not simply shifted from one arena to another.

It might seem that the means to influence our digital future and its impact on our planet lies solely in the hands of corporations. There are however, informed decisions we can make that could collectively make a difference.

Whether it is for security, control or response time, some of what we do as consumers or organizations will always need to be local. But by moving what we can into the cloud we are moving away from potentially under-utilised, aging and inefficient machines into some of the most efficient data centres available.

Even then, some clouds are cleaner than others. Greenpeace’s ‘Click Clean’ Report[xix] gives us a league table of the best and the rest when it comes to digital services powered by green energy. Choosing who’s services we use for our business, communication and entertainment gives each of us a say in how the internet will continue to grow.

As the ubiquity of digital communication and consumption makes our daily lives ever more distracted however, perhaps the most fundament control we have over our digital lives is best summarized by industrial designer Dieter Rams[xx]:

Next time

The drive for efficiency has been the over-arching agenda of data centers for many years, but this single-minded focus may have created other significant, and unintended impacts.

In Digital Impacts: Part 2 (to be published on the BREEAM website) we will explore the material impacts of mass resource extraction, manufacturing and disposal of tech on our environment, and how circular economy might contribute towards a more sustainable future.

Have your say

In 2010 BRE Global released the BREEAM Data Centers manual for the UK market. Since then we have seen huge changes across the industry, from our approach to how we use data centres to the way we design, build, and operate them, and the technology that sits within.

What has not changed is the continued focus on energy efficiency and uptime. Although this has led to clear sustainability benefits, it is not the only impact.

In association with Keysource, Data Centre Alliance and TechUK, BREEAM has launched a survey for data center operators, customers and industry professionals to determine the awareness and value that the industry places around the holistic sustainability impacts of data centres.

If you work in the data center industry, or know of any contacts, please take part or share the survey which should take no more than 5 minutes. Your responses will help inform future sustainability policies in the data centre industry.

Weikai Gong, Technical Consultant, BREEAM

Related insights