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You Stream. I Stream. It All Screams for More Storage!

Jan. 21, 2020
Our sustainability expert revisits the very real energy storage crisis fast emerging from the exponential growth of multimedia streaming services.

“My my, hey hey. Rock and roll is here to stay..." 

When Neil Young first sang those lyrics in 1977, he had no idea that fans would one day be streaming his music onto mobile devices... and consuming more energy than it took to press those vinyl records in the first place. 

When I wrote about this last May, quoting Neil’s promise that rock and roll would never die, I addressed only music streaming, and not any of the other streaming services such as movies, TV, social media, etc. Recent estimates put energy consumption for these uses at nearly two percent of total worldwide energy consumption, rivaling the airline industry. In 2018, commercial passenger flights and freight operations accounted for 918 million metric tons, or approximately 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions.

It’s not just the individual devices – cellphones, tablets, and smart TVs, cars, refrigerators, and dishwashers to name a few – that are consuming all that energy, but rather the enormous amounts of data being stored and processed in the more than 400 million servers expected to be in service by the end of 2020. Experts predict that between 30 and 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet this year. It’s interesting to note that of the approximately 100 million servers in use in 2016, a significant number of them were for Google and Microsoft. With an estimated seven billion connected devices in 2016, that was a ratio of 70 devices for every server.

In addition to the energy consumed in processing terabytes of data, these millions of servers must also be cooled. One expert estimates that, globally, data centers will consume as much as 651,000,000,000 kWh (that’s 651 terawatt-hours) per year. By comparison, in 2017, the entire country of Canada generated a total of 652 terawatt-hours of energy.

There are some creative solutions being advanced, so that we won’t have to stop binge watching Game of Thrones or streaming Shape of You. Amazon Web Services, the 800-pound gorilla of cloud storage, is now getting more than 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources. And the large energy loads associated with cooling server hotels can be somewhat ameliorated by locating them in cooler climes, such as Iceland, which welcomes data centers (https://www.invest.is/at-your-service/publications/data-centers-in-iceland/). And for those data centers not interested in moving that close to the Arctic Circle, heat recovery is nearly always a good option.

Personally, I won’t be feeling guilty while I watch the Super Bowl on my smart TV this year. Yes, I have one. But I’ll be at ASHRAE/AHR Expo 2020 in Orlando, watching on someone else’s big screen. Hope to see you there!

A regular contributor to HPAC Engineering and a member of its editorial advisory board, the author is a principal at Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a south Florida-based engineering firm focusing on energy and sustainability.