The Unseen Impact: How Climate Change, Smart Grids, and Data Consumption Shape Our World

The article is first appeared in ISB Blog on 9th Oct 2023

Is data really helping us to reach our environmental goals? Does question ring the bell? We all hear more means better! Let’s see.

Reimagining the Global Response to Climate Change Disasters

A typhoon hitting Japan, landslides in India, wildfires in the U.S., and storms in Germany – four distinct natural disasters spread across the globe. Despite their visual impact, these events often fail to evoke a strong response when featured in the news. We tend to quickly move on to more captivating stories, as these climate change-related incidents seem remote, happening to others far away and lacking a clear antagonist.

However, let’s reconsider this perspective. The truth is these events profoundly impact our lives in ways we may not fully grasp. They affect the food we consume, the money we possess, the treats we indulge in, and even the beverages we enjoy. Climate change-induced extreme weather exerts its influence on all these aspects and more.

UN COP conferences enable world leaders to commit to emission cuts, limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2050. Alongside political implications, digital and IS technology aids in monitoring and addressing climate solutions. It’s both a part of the solution and seen as contributing to issues like e-waste and dark data. Responsible digitalisation is key. Technology is essential for net zero, requiring practical shifts toward a climate-friendly society.

The Smart Grid Revolution: From Traditional to Digital

Coming from the Electricity sector, I understand that this part of the energy is supported by one of the largest machines called “Grid”; also, 27% of the total of 51 billion tons of carbon emission is through this machine. Further, globally, we are making our grid a smart grid to make this grid more accessible, robust and resilient. The term smart grid means different things to different people. One of the simplest ways to think of the smart grid is as a computerised version of the traditional distribution grid, i.e. sensors in various locations on the grid to collect data without manual intervention. Now, the smart grid can be classified broadly into two distinct component types: distribution automation – involving the distribution grid as it extends from local community substations to customer premises and smart meters – the devices at the customer premises that measure electric usage.

In 2022, over 1 billion smart meters were in use, a tenfold rise from 2010. By the end of 2023, around 13 billion connected devices with automation and sensors are projected, a significant increase from a decade ago. Estimates suggest this could grow to over 25 billion by 2030. A similar trend is observed in power grids, with roughly 320 million distribution sensors globally. These devices generate valuable data: smart meters track consumption, while sensors provide real-time grid insights. effectively, this data predicts usage patterns, anticipates grid stress and enhances power system management.

The Data Dilemma: Balancing Energy Efficiency and Environmental Impact

To achieve this, data must be collected, stored, analysed, and shared while upholding privacy and cybersecurity. This poses significant challenges for power systems but offers substantial benefits. In the European Union, improved data sharing could unlock over 580 GW of flexible energy resources by 2050, covering more than 90% of grid flexibility needs. Data utilisation enhances energy efficiency, optimising heating and cooling, and fosters innovation for new power services and products. It expedites power restoration post-faults.

In reality, data access encounters obstacles. Complex interoperability layers hinder seamless use, missing chances to benefit power systems. Thus, global smart meter data utilisation remains below potential, with just 2% to 4% currently enhancing grid efficiency. Transmission System Operators admit to underusing data opportunities. A survey of 10 TSOs reveals control rooms do not fully utilizing analytics, even with digitalised grids. While data collection increases, much lies dormant or isolated, holding untapped potential.

In the middle of data’s dominance, the energy sector produces 200 exabytes annually. Yet, data centres, the unsung heroes managing this, consume alarming energy. In 2022, they used 220 terawatt hours, contributing 2.5% to 3.7% of global emissions, up 10% in two years. Unstructured data, 80-90% of generated content, grows 50% faster than structured data, posing challenges. Extracting insights to cut energy usage becomes complex, hindering progress and sustainability.

Hidden Carbon Footprint and Dark Data

Telecom operators consume 2% – 3% of global energy, ranking them highly energy-intensive. Rising energy use amplifies their carbon footprint, affecting the environment and their standing with socially conscious investors. The pandemic, surging digital demand, and the need for high-speed communication have escalated energy consumption. The ICT and telecom industry significantly influence CO2 emissions and waste due to an expected 60% annual growth in global data traffic. Telecom providers must manage network capacity and embrace eco-friendly practices for sustainable large-scale operations. According to an IBM report, 60% of all data loses its value almost immediately after it is collected.

Similar to single-use plastic, accumulating single-use data significantly impacts the environment. The internet is highly energy-intensive, powered by data centre centres (large server setups). As connections grow, energy consumption will rise. By 2025, IT might consume 20% of global electricity and emit up to 5.5% of carbon emissions, surpassing many countries. Dark data, unused and stored, adds to internet-related emissions.

Data’s Energy Intensity: Overlooked Environmental Concern

Climate activism targets fossil fuels, but the data’s energy intensity is often overlooked. Government policies can minimise data capture, prioritising immediate benefits. A case in point is India’s Revamped Distribution Sector Scheme (RDSS), investing INR 3.08 billion to enhance the weakest link in electricity—the distribution sector. Among its components, 250 million smart prepayment meters are commissioned, generating significant data. However, many service level agreements (SLAs) result in dark, unused data accumulation. Smart meter deployment should mark a key step towards a low-emission future. We must avoid inadvertently hindering net-zero goals.

Additionally, we need to acknowledge the environmental impacts of our digital footprint and encourage users to lessen them. A 2020 BBC report suggests tactics like less frequent device upgrades, reducing unused email subscriptions, and favouring SMS over internet messaging apps.