Scaling a renewable future for internet power

Scaling a renewable future for internet power

ShutterstockMax Griboedov

Almost every business today — from tech to financial services and media to retail and healthcare — relies on online services and data. As more companies look to cloud services to support their digital needs, the internet’s energy demands likely will only continue to grow.  

This means internet use could jeopardize the planet if we do not take action. We cannot hope to create a climate-compatible internet without addressing its overall footprint, which includes data centers as well as the transmission, equipment and code that make them work. Moreover, we cannot reach the ambitious objectives of the Paris Agreement without bringing the leading companies whose data use drives this energy demand into this conversation. That is one reason we founded the Future of Internet Power collaborative initiative in 2012 — because in order to create an internet powered 100 percent by renewable energy, we need to work together.

In 2014, it was estimated that data centers consumed 2 to 3 percent of global energy use. While breakthroughs in efficiency and cloud technology have the potential to limit energy demand associated with data centers to a moderate increase by 2020, global estimates of data center demand in 2030 anticipate an increase of three to 10 times current levels, including projections that global data center electricity demand alone could reach 13 percent of global electricity consumption.

Telecommunications and wireless networks consume tremendous amounts of energy, although many of these companies have made ambitious commitments to reduce their emissions. To put the energy demand of these networks into context, the annual total reported energy use of AT&T in 2017 was more than twice that of Google (PDF).

The manufacturing of the equipment that makes the internet work, such as servers, is also a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that some companies are looking to reduce. Hewlett Packard Enterprise, for example, has responded to this by committing to set science-based targets for its suppliers that will avoid 100 million tons of GHGs by 2025.

We know that code and software engineering could do much more to reduce environmental impact, too. Studies suggest that as much as 60 percent of code is written without green or energy efficiency principles in mind.

The Future of Internet Power has made great progress over the past five years:

  • We have grown to include more than 20 companies in our community, which has made great strides in building common values, goals and tools to realize those values and achieve our goals. These companies include not only ICT companies, but also data centers, financial institutions and online retailers.
  • We launched the Corporate Colocation and Cloud Buyers’ Principles, which set out six criteria that customers of data center colocation and cloud services expect of their data center service providers.
    • To put these principles into action, we created a toolkit to give companies a step-by-step guide to engaging with their cloud and colo providers on each principle.
  • We have worked closely with the World Resources Institute (WRI) to produce a white paper addressing the issue of GHG emissions accounting, renewable energy procurement and reporting in the data center sector
    • This work led to the creation of a template for customers and providers to use to guide them on the documentation that could support verification of zero carbon claims, which marks a step toward greater consistency in this sector.
  • We continue work closely with our co-founders of the Renewable Energy Buyers’ Alliance (REBA): Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center, the World Wildlife Fund and WRI.

While we are excited about the work we have done to equip companies to leverage renewable energy to power their data and internet use, this is a complex and complicated industry. We are excited to create a new and ambitious mission that drives us closer to a new definition of a sustainable internet. We see a real need to ratchet up our impact, enable greater transparency and integrate climate considerations into companies’ data plans.

One thing is clear: The current group of companies tacking this problem needs your help. Almost every company will need a new blueprint to increase the climate-compatibility of its internet use. Our next step for the Future of Internet Power is to create that blueprint.

Now is the time for more of you to join us at this table — because changing how tech and data are powered not only helps individual companies in the space reach their environmental goals; it also lays a foundation for the organizations that use their products and services to be a part of the solution.

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