Power-hungry digitalisation: How to feed its demand sustainably

The immediate benefits of digitalisation are so breath-taking that we rarely stop to consider its longer-term impact − an unsustainable dependency on fossil fuels.
Edward Lawrence
By Edward Lawrence, Co-founder of Workonline Communications
Johannesburg, 22 Apr 2021

The digital economy has achieved staggering growth thanks to COVID-19-related lockdowns around the world. Wherever possible, communities, organisations, individuals and businesses are using the Internet to stay connected, provide services and keep the wheels of commerce turning.

Addressing this has resulted in an exponential rise in Internet traffic in South Africa, the continent, as well as globally.

As a director of one of the largest wholesale Internet providers in Africa, I have a front row seat to witness the exciting and necessary increase in the demand for faster, higher quality Internet services. This increased demand means networks need to install more power-hungry devices in data centres: it takes energy to cool data centres, run servers, charge mobile devices and keep the Internet on.

Some of the world’s largest data centres can each require more than 100 megawatts (MW) of power capacity − enough to power around 80 000 households, or a small town. It’s estimated that global data centres take up 1% of the world’s total energy consumption.

Currently less than 1% of the world’s data centre capacity is in Africa but increased demand is generating phenomenal growth in this vertical.

Teraco, South Africa’s biggest data centre operator, recently opened a new data centre in Johannesburg, with another one already under way, attracting the world’s leading cloud computing providers such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

In addition, PAIX data centres, a Pan-African provider of cloud- and carrier-neutral colocation data centre services, announced the opening of its Nairobi data centre in Kenya, as part of the company’s accelerated African expansion, following its 2018 entry into the West African market in Accra, Ghana.

And most recently, Africa Data Centres, a Liquid Telecoms company, announced plans to build a 10MW facility in Lagos, Nigeria.

It’s estimated that global data centres take up 1% of the world’s total energy consumption.

These investments made by data centre operators are much needed across the continent where economies have been hardest hit by the pandemic. However, the momentum and immediate benefits of digitalisation are so breath-taking that, like many other technological advancements through the ages, one rarely stops to consider its longer-term impact; namely, an unsustainable dependency on fossil fuels.

South Africa’s coal-fired power stations generate critical energy but we know extracting coal from the earth ruins the land and burning coal pollutes the air.

In 2019, South Africa saw a sharp decrease in Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) emissions, bringing the country’s emissions to their lowest level on record. How? The fall was most like from a temporary reduction in coal-fired power generation, which led to load-shedding. The country remains a global hotspot for these emissions and the largest hotspot driven by coal combustion worldwide.

Innovative energy sources such as CoalSwitch, an environmentally-friendly biomass-based fuel that is currently being tested by major power stations in the United States, could help solve this. It can be used in coal-fired power stations and, without needing to significantly retrofit existing infrastructure, it reduces harmful sulphur and carbon dioxide emissions.

It also boasts hydrophobic qualities which remove the need for expensive climate-controlled storage or shipping facilities required by white pellet coal replacement technology. CoalSwitch, developed and patented by Active Energy Group, has the potential to eliminate our dependence (either in part or completely) on coal-fuelled power by harnessing our low-value forestry, agricultural residues and energy crops.

While there are reports that the expansion of the digital economy and data usage is not directly correlated to energy usage and carbon emissions, it’s exciting to see there are great innovations that are supporting the drive to improve energy-efficiency.

However, while larger, modern data centres mitigate some of the impact, power supply needs overall do increase, and will have an impact on the volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

The total lifecycle carbon footprint of the ICT sector is reported to be at approximately 700 million tonnes CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e): of this 170 MtCO2e is from the telco sector, 190 MtCO2e is from the manufacture of user devices, 190MtCO2e is from the use of user devices, and the remainder for data centres and enterprise networks. This is equivalent to around 1.4% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Some more examples of initiatives to increase energy-efficiency are electronic component manufacturers that invested heavily in improving the efficiency of devices. CPUs are the most energy consuming components in servers, thus energy-efficient CPU models with effective power management can strongly support efficiency.

These examples are important as they showcase solutions which support sustainable digitalisation and thus, long-term economic growth. To build an affordable, available and quality Internet ecosystem in Africa and abroad that benefits all communities will require sustainable power.

It is important to elevate digital access as a basic human right; however, fully charged mobile phones with Internet connectivity are not much good if people are unable to breathe the air or drink the water.

Energy innovation is not simply about staying connected, it’s also about staying alive.