How much energy does the internet use

Power guzzler Internet : What our digital consumption costs in terms of energy

Anyone surfing online consumes a lot of electricity - and not just because the smartphone battery runs out at some point. Cellular antennas forward the internet requests, several data centers process them. None of this works without energy. So it is no wonder that most people underestimate the resource consumption of their digital activities. The environmental organization Greenpeace does the math: If the digital world were a country, it would rank sixth in terms of electricity consumption, with a share of eight to ten percent.

The French non-profit organization The Shift Project estimates that the entire area of ​​information and communication technology (ICT) causes around 3.7 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and thus more than twice as much as civil aviation. In Germany alone, 47 billion kilowatt hours of electricity are now consumed by computers, electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets, televisions and communication networks and data centers that are barely visible to the individual. In 2017, they accounted for around 13.2 billion kilowatt hours nationwide - so they consumed as much as the city of Berlin.

At that time statisticians counted 53,000 data centers in Germany. There are particularly many of them in Frankfurt am Main, if only because the German Commercial Internet Exchange (Decix) is based there: an Internet node through which a particularly large amount of data runs. According to the latest figures, the data centers consume 20 percent of the city's electricity and have already overtaken Frankfurt Airport.

Energy consumption is one thing. Since the servers heat up during their operation, operators have to cool them continuously. This in turn generates heat, which, however, momentarily evaporates unused. This is indicated by the network of energy-efficient data centers (NeRZ) and the Association of the Internet Industry Eco. Sweden shows how it can be done better. There are already 30 data centers there that feed their waste heat into the district heating network. By 2035, this waste heat should even cover a tenth of Stockholm's heating needs.

In Germany, on the other hand, data centers that pass on the waste heat are still the exception. The start-up Cloud & Heat from Dresden, for example, has set up a data center on two floors in the Eurotheum in Frankfurt am Main, where the ECB was previously located: Its waste heat is used directly for the office and hotel business in the high-rise. According to the start-up, this saves the high-rise building around 40,000 euros a year on heating energy, which corresponds to the consumption of 150 low-energy houses.

Data center operators don't see how to use the heat

The potential is well known: In a survey by the NeRZ, half of the data center operators surveyed stated that using the waste heat had "medium to very high savings potential". Entire apartment blocks can be heated in this way. However, more than half of the operators surveyed do not see how they could use the process economically

The Federal Ministry of Economics supports the costs for efficiency improvements of companies by 30 to 40 percent. However, the real problem for the operators is not the investment costs, says Ralph Hintemann, lead researcher at the Borderstep Institute. Rather, they shied away from the high running costs. In an international comparison, electricity prices in Germany are high, which is why other European countries are more attractive for data center operators anyway.

In addition, the vast majority of data centers in Germany are still air-cooled. Compared to a new method with water, this cooling is less efficient. In order to be able to use the waste heat at all, a heat pump would have to heat the air further. "Since electricity for heat pumps is subject to the EEG surcharge, it is not worth it for the operators," says Béla Waldhauser, CEO of the operator Telehouse, one of the largest in the industry. In his opinion, data centers should be exempted from the levy. The digital association Bitkom also demands this.

Energy suppliers are often not interested in passing on the heat

Often the data center operators also lacked suitable customers for the waste heat. Waldhauser believes that the municipalities should become more involved here. “With new development areas, sustainability has to be considered right from the start,” he says. “It can be built around data centers, for example.” In addition, most energy providers would not be interested in taking waste heat from data centers, since they sell heat themselves.

Dieter Janecek, member of the Bundestag for the Greens and chairman in the digital committee, therefore calls for energy suppliers to be held accountable. Data centers would also have to be encouraged to obtain 100 percent of their electricity from renewable energies and to use the latest technology such as water cooling. Ultimately, however, the federal government cannot intervene to regulate everywhere. "A higher taxation of CO2 remains the most important requirement," says Janecek.

The energy efficiency of data centers is also an issue at the level of the federal states. At the 92nd Environment Ministers Conference in May, the federal states decided to develop a green IT initiative. The use of waste heat should be a central field of action. Green IT goes even further, however. For example, the public sector should pay attention to sustainability in future when buying hardware and software and should give preference to video conferences to business trips. According to the Federal Environment Ministry, however, it is not expected that the initiative will be before May 2020.

In the meantime, digital consumption and thus electricity consumption will probably continue to increase - for example through data-intensive applications such as the Internet of Things or the new 5G mobile communications standard. Even training an artificial intelligence (AI) for speech recognition produces five times as much CO2 as a car emits during its entire service life. This is what researchers at the University of Massachusetts have calculated. At the same time, however, experts are working, of all things, on using AI to increase energy efficiency and switch to renewable energies more quickly. The waste heat from data centers could also be used more effectively as a result.

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