Ask The Experts: Green Information and Communication Technology

What you want to know about making devices more eco-friendly

18 April 2016

The greenhouse-gas emissions produced globally by information and communication technology (ICT) account for more than 2 percent of the worldwide total—and that percentage is expected to double by 2020. In our March issue, The Institute explored the many ways the IEEE Green ICT Initiative is working to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.  

Here to answer your questions on how to make technology more energy efficient is a leading expert in the field. IEEE Member Thierry Klein led the GreenTouch consortium technical committee, which was composed of experts from 48 information and communication technology companies, as well as academia and nongovernmental organizations. The group’s goal was to improve the energy efficiency of communication networks by a factor of 1,000 by 2020 compared with those in use in 2010 (the year the consortium was launched), all without compromising performance and while supporting the larger traffic volumes expected.

Q: From the March issue, it is clear work needs to be done to make the information and communication technology industry more eco-friendly. However, how can ICT be used to make other industries greener as well?

The ICT sector has tremendous potential for making other industries greener and reducing their impact on global carbon emissions. This is generally referred to as the enabling effect of ICT.

Emissions avoided through the use of ICT—such as video conferencing instead of flying to a meeting—are nearly 10 times larger than the emissions generated by information and communication technology. The savings can be achieved through smarter energy and agricultural solutions, for example, that optimize or reduce the consumption of resources.

Q: It seems obvious that technologists would consider energy consumption of devices and networks. What are some of the reasons they are not thinking about this factor in the design stage? What are some of their challenges?

Energy consumption and battery life of devices have always been a prime concern. On the network side, other performance criteria have traditionally been the drivers for new features and innovations, such as larger network capacity.

More recently the views have shifted, especially as energy consumption and efficiency have become detrimental from technical, operational, and business perspectives. For example, the energy bills of some large companies have started to exceed 1 billion dollars per year, and emissions are creating challenges on the size and weight of network equipment. The most visible benefits of reduced energy consumption, however, are not measured in an electric bill.

Q: Who, besides engineers, should be involved in making the ICT industry greener? How can engineers also become more active in the process?

It is important to understand the impact of energy consumption on the overall performance and cost of the network, which requires input from not only network design engineers, but also those in operations and other departments.  

Each component of a network should be optimized for energy efficiency, but sometimes trade-offs have to be made. A good example is the use of virtualization techniques, which move network functionalities into the cloud. This may increase consumption in the cloud, but will dramatically reduce it in data centers. These techniques can only be accomplished by taking a holistic approach to the entire network architecture, which requires expertise from multiple domains.

Q: What are the implications of big data and the Internet of Things on ICT’s energy efficiency? Will they cause energy usage to accelerate, or will usage slow down?

The Internet of Things will create different challenges in terms of energy consumption. While billions of devices are expected to be connected to networks, they may not necessarily be transmitting a lot of information. For example, each sensor and wearable requires small amounts of data.

However, one of the key challenges with deploying billions of devices is it is neither economically viable nor practical to connect all of them to the power grid or to replace their batteries periodically. As a result, the power consumption of these devices has to be low enough so they can be sustainable, such as being recharged through local energy harvesting technologies that take advantage of solar or wind.  

The good news is the overall energy consumption of networks will eventually stabilize, remain flat, or even decrease despite the dramatic traffic growth and increase in capacity expected in the next decade. Several research studies, including those conducted by GreenTouch, have proposed a portfolio of technologies that demonstrate how this can be achieved.

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