Jane Kearns is vice-president of growth services at MaRS Discovery District.
Hulu doesn’t come out of a tailpipe. Cows don’t belch Spotify. Birds don’t drown in Twitch ponds. But while we can’t see the environmental repercussions of streaming, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
There’s no way around the fact that our work and home lives increasingly revolve around data streams. Forget about laptop browsing, e-mail and social media; I’m talking about the giant reams of data we consume across the internet for personal and professional reasons, eight or 16 or even 24 hours a day.
Disney just rolled out its new streaming service to rival Apple and especially Netflix, which already mainlines more than a billion hours of programming to binge-watching subscribers each week. Add those to our video chats, music playlists, online games, virtual assistants, smart thermostats and global positioning systems. Throw in road sensors, surveillance cameras and cryptocurrencies; and, soon, 5G connectivity, remote surgeries and autonomous transportation.
Streaming is becoming downright ubiquitous. But because our devices are just the receiving tools, we rarely think about the energy that goes into powering it all. And we’re almost completely blind to the emissions, smog, thermal pollution and other side effects arising from that energy use.
The missing link is the data centres that service our consumption. Data centres are the internet’s back office, the invisible engines that power everything we do online. There are more than eight million of them around the world, running full-tilt to meet our demand. Some of them are massive fields lined with servers – high-speed processing machines in constant operation around the clock.
Much of the energy these farms use goes toward cooling these servers, so companies like to build them where the weather is temperate – countries such as Iceland, Ireland, Finland, even Canada. Even so, they use more than 200 terawatt hours a year worldwide, the equivalent of Australia’s annual electricity consumption. For a country such as Ireland, that means devoting a third of all national electricity to data-centre operations by 2027.
The developed world’s seemingly insatiable streaming habit means these numbers are still tracking upward. And what happens as developing countries begin catching up? According to research by Anders Andrae, a sustainable infotech expert at Huawei, data centres are on track to represent 8 per cent of global electricity demand by 2030 – a staggering proportion, if it proves true.
One obvious solution is data-centre energy efficiency and owners of these facilities are working hard to improve it. For example, they’re looking at technologies that will allow them to dramatically reduce electricity use or recover low-grade heat exhausted by air conditioners.
And they’re increasingly looking to renewables to lessen their impact. Google recently announced a string of wind and solar power deals, while Amazon pledged to measure its emissions and run completely on renewables by 2030. Facebook hopes to achieve the same goal within a year.
Unfortunately, there’s currently only so much green electricity to go around – unless data centres start building their own renewable supply, they will essentially be robbing Peter to pay Paul.
While the efficiency gains are critical, they currently constitute a rearguard battle against our increased demand.
Traffic to and from data centres is growing exponentially, surpassing a trillion gigabytes in 2017, and efficient new technologies are just going to allow us to keep streaming more data. For instance, 5G networking may be more efficient than what it’s replacing, but it will almost certainly enable technologies that use enormous amounts of data. The data streamed by an autonomous car would completely fill the 240 GB hard drive of an average laptop computer in less than a minute.
Maybe new technologies will come about that save us from our own data use. Maybe the efficiencies and abatements will eventually grow to match our consumption.
But for the moment, we can’t fix this problem until we recognize it. While we fret about green energy and the oil sands and we throw up our hands about lowering our carbon footprint, a very tangible puzzle piece is flashing right before us on our devices and screens. At some point, we need to ask ourselves how much music we need to download, how many movies we need to watch, how many services we need and how many devices we need to connect – how much data we really require.
Because our dirty little streaming habit is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the problem.