Newsletter #111: 'E' Is For Energy - The Elephant In The Room

09 Oct 2014

MusicTank first raised the energy issue around digital distribution and consumption back in 2012 with the publication of our report – The Dark Side Of The Tune.  Itself a summary of part of a much wider study conducted by Bach Technology AS, University of Bergen, and the Fraunhofer Institute, author Dagfinn Bach put on the table the notion that in terms of energy, ‘digital’ might not be all that it’s cracked up to be.

Widely mistaken in a general presumption that the downloading and streaming of digital content is more efficient and less resource heavy than physical formats, this study indicated the opposite, asserting that:

  • filesharing could consume the equivalent of up to four times the annual combined electricity consumption of all UK households
  • streaming an album over the internet 27 times can use more energy than the manufacturing and production of its CD equivalent

Perhaps most shocking of all, the report concurred with other research done in this area, that the content industries’ combined global footprint of CO2 could eclipse that of the global aviation sector – the latter long considered a key contributor to global warming.

Whilst the environmental debate regarding global warming ebbs and flows on a near-daily basis, the issue of energy consumption of the storage, transmission and consumption of data – itself exacerbated by the explosion in cloud storage and cloud computing – appears to be more conclusive.  If nothing else, The Dark Side Of The Tune made the case for an urgent need for more research, and so it was with interest to learn recently about the latest projections concerning the electricity consumption of data.

Interviewed by Peter Day for the excellent In Business series on BBC Radio 4 recently1, Hewlett Packard’s Milan Shetti (Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Storage Division) revealed their findings that make for stark reading:

He made it clear that in terms of data storage, whilst previous projections about the trend for energy consumption have been accurate, “…our projections about the rate and scale at which change is happening were way-off…”

As if previous estimates weren’t bad enough – that global electricity production won’t meet demand from digital services and devices by 2025/ 2030 – in fact, Hewlett Packard “now think the timeline will be pulled in by a decade – to 2020.”

So by 2020 – in just five and a half years time – we could be looking at a global shortage of electricity and be unable to meet the energy demands of cloud services, data storage and associated devices.  Despite current and imminent developments in technology efficiencies, the tsunami of data being unleashed in an increasingly tech and data-driven world makes the scale and magnitude of the problem much, much worse.

Far from this being solely a ‘green’ issue, this has fast become one centred on a scarce resource on which the whole of the developed world depends.

The energy debate has moved on since the days of headline grabbing reports of a single Google search using as much energy as it takes to boil a kettle of water (and since keenly disputed).

But such pronouncements at least helped profile the issue.

And the online behemoths of Apple, Google, Amazon and the rest have since invested billions into more efficient tech, (nor are they any longer as reliant on ‘dirty’ energy from heavily polluting and inefficient sources such as coal fired power stations).

But depressingly, these companies account for no more than 5% of total energy consumed by the US data industry, according to recent reports.  So whilst the efficiencies are impressive, the positive impact is relatively small.

Yet for an industry whose entire recordings business model depends on innovations in tech and data to stem further decline, it’s surprising this energy issue isn’t more prominent, if not centre-stage.

Undoubtedly, developments in computers will further enable the storage of greater volumes of data, more reliably and using less power.  But will such developments be quick enough, and what happens if they don’t?  Will we see the introduction of capped energy use, an additional tax on demand, or otherwise disincentivise the purchase of devises and services?

In the meantime, surely the imminent prospect of ‘not enough electricity’ should arouse a similar response one could reasonably expect from the motor industry if warned that petrol would run out in a similar timeframe, not to mention pressing discussions about its implications.

Whether it be lack of awareness, skepticism or a reluctance to discuss this issue, the music industry has remained notably silent on this ticking time bomb which it can ill afford.

Over the coming weeks MusicTank will be canvassing opinion (comments below welcomed) and taking the temperature within the industry; from gauging awareness of the problem to seeing what, if anything, can be done about it.

If nothing else, perhaps we can get to a point where the issue of energy is no longer the elephant in the room.

Editorial by Jonathan Robinson

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You may also be interested in this piece by Julie’s Bicycle: The Environmental Sustainability Perspective

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