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Cleaning Up: Britain’s Energy Crisis

We create as much information as we did from the beginning of time until 2003, every two days. The demand for data has never been higher, and we have the internet to thank for it.

We send 204 million emails. Generate 1.8 million Facebook likes. Compose 278 thousand tweets. Upload 100 hours of video to YouTube and create 570 new websites… every minute.

Now, with more bytes of data in the digital universe than there are believed to be stars in the physical universe, our feet are firmly planted in an age of information. But at what cost?

The amount of data we capture and store doubles every 1.2 years roughly, and with that, so do energy costs. In order to mitigate risks posed by future energy cost variations, we must look at current and future markets of both data centres and energy suppliers.

Fossil fuel reserves are declining at an alarming rate. In the UK we use the equivalent of over 11 billion tonnes of oil in fossil fuels per year, and it is expected that the oil deposit will be gone by 2052, a much earlier stage than predicted. At present, 976 grams of CO2 is produced per $1 of GDP. For this production level to be sustainable, CO2 would need to drop to just 6 grams, which means relying on green, renewable energy to reduce the carbon footprint.

The benefits of making the switch to renewable energy make it seem like a no-brainer, but it comes down to the issue of cost. In Britain, electricity from wind farms costs twice as much as that from traditional sources. Solar power is even more expensive. While relatively cheap to run, it is building the infrastructure that has a large impact.

So where does the data centre come into all this?

While many people remain blissfully unaware of the internet’s carbon footprint, the data centre stands as the internet’s dirty little energy-hungry secret. Behind all those ones and zeroes transferring half a petabyte of data every minute are data centres that account for 3% of all global electricity production. Or as an alternative look at it; 200 million metric tons of CO2, and that figure is growing.

It has been labelled an energy crisis. In March 2014, Greenpeace released a report claiming that a centralised European super-grid could allow the EU to reach a 45% renewable energy share by 2030. However, there is only so much that can be done at an EU governance level. It is down to the member states to improve their own network infrastructure for this to work, and that means upfront capital. Plenty of it.

At present, the UK employs submarine electrical cables linking us to Ireland, France and The Netherlands. However, the capacity of these cables remains at less than 5% of the entire electrical capacity of Britain. This makes importing energy from a panEuropean super-grid a low possibility, and even fewer opportunities to export.

So what can we do about it?

Ironically, it is the vast sea of data that allows us the foresight to devise solutions before we really find ourselves in a pickle. Under European Union targets, the UK must produce 15% of its overall energy from renewable sources by 2020. In a world so reliant on fossil fuels that might seem like a stretch, but if history shows us anything, it’s that we Brits love rising to a challenge.

In the UK data centre industry, an important metric in any data centre operation is PUE. For those unfamiliar with the acronym, Power Usage Effectiveness is a metric that shows the ration between power used for the IT processes and the power used by the supporting systems that allow the data centre to operate. Although this metric can be abused it is a good general indicator of how “energy efficient” a data centre is. Using less power not only ensures lower operating costs, but a commitment to the environment. In a power hungry industry, that commitment is paramount and the results speak for themselves.

New analysis shows that in 2013, 15% of the UK’s electricity came from renewable energy sources, putting us about halfway toward our commitments. While transport and heating still remains relatively high in comparison, we are on course to meet that 2020 target. Out of 16 of the world’s major economies, which account for 71% of the world’s electricity consumption, we rank 6th. Only Germany, Italy, France, the EU and China outrank us. Considering that the UK is the largest per capita e-commerce market on Earth, that’s nothing to sniff about.

We call it a crisis, but should we panic?

When we utter the word in the Western world, we paint a portrait of only impending danger. It is a word that triggers the pessimist in us. However, the country we sit behind in those rankings see it a different way and perhaps it’s time we should take a leaf out of their book. See, in Chinese the word ‘crisis’ is comprised of two brush strokes. The first stroke meaning danger. The second meaning opportunity.

So, with this in mind, what does the word ‘crisis’ mean to you?