AI and big data: the energy suckers of the future

The growing amounts of data created each year, combined with the pursuit of AI capabilities, are expected to put a huge strain on the world’s energy resources over the next decade – or at least until quantum computing becomes the norm.

The need for data and cloud storage will impact energy consumption – and not in a good way, according to a January report ranking the 50 Top power-consuming data center markets worldwide by Visual Capitalist.

Not only has the amount of data being created each year jumped astronomically from 2 zettabytes (ZB) in 2010 to 44 zettabytes in 2020, but the need for the infrastructure to support processing and storing that data has also risen dramatically, the research found.

(To put it in perspective, it takes a trillion gigabytes to make up just 1 zettabyte of data.)

By 2025, the world population will be generating an estimated ½ ZB every day, which is an expected increase of about 20% each year starting from 2020, reports Statista.

There are over 10,000 data centers operating around the world today, about half of them in the US, followed by Beijing and the East-Asian market, with London and Europe rounding out the top three.

The US is said to be the largest data center market due to companies like Google, Amazon, Meta, and Microsoft.

It's not about the size

Data centers are measured not by size, but by the amount of electrical power consumed by the servers it holds.

The global data center market over the next decade is forecast to grow by more than 10% per year, with data center construction at 7.5% growth.

In 2023, the numbers reveal most data centers use an average of 100 megawatts (100 million watts) for each center.

Most data centers are built in populated areas to take advantage of already-in-place infrastructure such as government and utilities, putting a strain on older, already maxed-out electric grids, resulting in higher prices for consumers.

For example, the Washington DC area in Northern Virginia state represents the largest data center market in the world, with over 300 centers responsible for about one-third of the world’s online traffic.

Top 50 data center markets
Image by Cushman and Wakefield | Data Center Hawk.

The 2023 Global Data Center Market Comparison report by Cushman and Wakefield shows power costs have risen, mostly in the top markets, by a median of 16%.

The electricity used by data centers today could power close to 6.5 million average American homes, according to sustainable investment firm Carbon Collective.

Energy alternatives

As the urgent need and growth of data centers begin to expand in smaller and emerging markets, the increase in power consumption will certainly clash with many green energy initiatives and carbon emission reduction promises made by governments worldwide.

Currently the largest source of energy is satisfied by fossil fuels.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos Tuesday, Open AI CEO Sam Altman stressed the need for an energy breakthrough to support the enormous amounts of power needed to sustain future artificial intelligence.

Altman pushed the ideas of nuclear fusion and solar power as two climate friendly alternatives to electric power.

"There's no way to get there without a breakthrough. It motivates us to go invest more in fusion," Altman said.

One bright light may be the widely anticipated coming of quantum computers, which experts say could become mainstream in the next 10 years, maybe less.

Still, reduction of energy use in quantum computing is still only a theory.

Some experts say the energy used for quantum processing is negligible compared to computers of today, while others argue that quantum energy consumption will continue to increase as “algorithms grow to involve more consecutive operations,” according to research published in Nature Computational Science.

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