Data centers are the backbone supporting the world’s ever-increasing need for internet access, data storage, and networking. Demand for data center services has risen sharply over past decades, and data-intensive technologies promise to increase demand further. New research by a team including Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's (Berkeley Lab's) Arman Shehabi and Sarah Smith shows that energy-efficiency advances have helped avert a corresponding surge in energy use from global data centers.
The research, outlined in the February 28, 2020 issue of the journal Science, found that energy use in data centers has remained relatively flat over the past decade due to massive energy efficiency gains in the global data center industry. These efficiency gains are greater than those of any other major sector in the energy system (e.g., transport, manufacturing, or aviation).
"Considering that data centers are energy-intensive enterprises in a rapidly evolving industry, we do need to analyze them rigorously,” said study coauthor Shehabi, a research scientist in the Energy Analysis & Environmental Impacts Division at Berkeley Lab. “Less detailed analyses have predicted rapid growth in data center energy use, but without fully considering the historical efficiency progress made by the industry. When we include that missing piece, a different picture of our digital lifestyles emerges.”
Working together, researchers from Berkeley Lab, Northwestern University, Koomey Analytics, and the University of California Santa Barbara integrated new data on data center equipment stocks, efficiency trends, and market structure into the most comprehensive computer-based model of data center energy use to date. The model enables the prediction of energy use by data center end-use (e.g., servers, storage devices, cooling systems), by data center type (including hyperscale), and by world region.
From the Science article: “In 2018, the team estimated that global data center energy use rose to 205 TWh, or around 1% of global electricity consumption. This represents a 6% increase compared with 2010, whereas global data center compute instances increased by 550% over the same time period. Expressed as energy use per compute instance, the energy intensity of global data centers has decreased by 20% annually since 2010, a notable improvement compared with recent annual efficiency gains in other major demand sectors (e.g., aviation and industry), which are an order of magnitude lower.”
But can current energy efficiency measures and advances keep the industry from growing into an energy guzzler over the next decades? The study showed that a sufficient energy efficiency resource exists to absorb the next doubling in global data center computational demand, but that strong policy actions are needed to seize this potential. The remaining efficiency potential that can be seized with existing technologies may only last another few years before rising demand for data services leads to sharp growth in energy use, ringing an alarm bell for policy makers to act now.
“While the historical efficiency progress made by data centers is remarkable, our findings do not mean that the IT industry and policymakers can rest on their laurels,” said Eric Masanet — an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and the Mellichamp Chair in Sustainability Science for Emerging Technologies at the University of California, Santa Barbara — who led the study. “We think there is enough remaining efficiency potential to last several more years. But ever-growing demand for data means that everyone — including policymakers, data center operators, equipment manufacturers and data consumers — must intensify efforts to avoid a possible sharp rise in energy use later this decade.”
The team outlines several areas of action for policymakers to ensure energy efficiency as the market continues to grow. Policy support, including efficiency standards and benchmarks, can help data centers seize the remaining efficiency potential of current technology and structural trends. Investment in new technologies is also needed to manage future energy demand growth in the cleanest manner possible, once current efficiency trends reach their feasible limits. Finally, national policy-makers should enact robust data collection and open data repository systems for data center energy use, in much the same way as has been done historically for other demand sectors.
Berkeley Lab engineer Dale Sartor agrees that the days when efficiency gains can outpace growth in data demand are numbered, and that policy makers, data center operators, and data consumers need to act to prevent large energy use growth in the not-so-distant future.
“The massive efficiency gains delivered over the last decade were mostly thanks to market shifts to big data center operators like Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc., who are often vilified for their energy use, yet their operations are the most efficient data center services available,” said Sartor. “The big question is: what are the measures we can take now to avoid the return to fast energy growth in data centers?”
The study, “Recalibrating global data center energy-use estimates,” was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (award number DE-AC02-05CH11231).
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s (Berkeley Lab) Energy Technologies Area scientists have conducted research in the areas of energy efficiency and energy analysis, building science, the electricity grid, batteries, air quality, energy technologies and more. Our mission is to perform analysis, research and development to improve energy technologies.
Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit eta.lbl.gov, lbl.gov and energy.gov/science.