The aviation industry produces about 2 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions and faces great pressure to reduce its carbon footprint. Another industry with comparable emissions, however, flies under the radar with little pushback: information and communication technology (ICT).
“People are unaware that the carbon footprint of ICT is so large,” says IEEE Senior Member Jaafar Elmirghani. He is co-chair of the IEEE Green ICT initiative, director of the Institute of Integrated Information Systems, and chair of the communication networks and systems department at the University of Leeds, in England.
What’s more, ICT is growing much faster than the aviation industry. Internet traffic is increasing 30 percent to 40 percent each year, Elmirghani points out, adding, “If this rate continues and nothing is done, ICT in 10 years could consume about 60 percent of the world’s energy resources.”
Elmirghani is leading the initiative’s global efforts to make ICT greener. The initiative is:
- Identifying ways to help the telecom industry become more energy efficient.
- Promoting uses of ICT that can make other industrial sectors greener, including manufacturing and transportation.
- Working with ICT companies to develop standards for green technologies and for assessing the full environmental impact of their technologies during their life cycles.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
Elmirghani has led two projects to reduce the carbon footprint of telecom systems by implementing more energy-efficient hardware, architecture, and protocols as well as using renewable energy. One is the INTERNET (for INTelligent Energy awaRe NETworks) project, which received US $9 million in funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the United Kingdom agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences.
The other is a five-year project that is part of the GreenTouch Consortium, composed of experts from 48 information and communication technology companies, academia, and nongovernmental organizations. It wants to develop ways to improve network energy efficiency.
In June, he received the GreenTouch 1000x Award, one of the most prestigious honors in the green communications industry.
His recommendations for improving energy efficiency include equipping all new telecom hardware with a sleep mode to power down equipment when network traffic is low. Better caching—which stores data closer so future requests can be retrieved faster—is another simple way to minimize power use.
Another recommendation is to improve the protocols for data transfer and optimize the placement of network nodes, or connection points, which would also impact energy use.
“If I want to send information from point A to point B, the best way to minimize power consumption may not always be to take the shortest route but the one that goes through the fewest nodes, which transmit messages toward the final destination,” he says. Sending larger data packets also would help because there would be fewer packets to switch and route.
During the next two years, Elmirghani is working with the IEEE Green ICT group to demonstrate hardware that relies on those techniques. Many of the upgrades would be software-based, making them relatively easy to set up. But it would be up to the telecom industry to put them into practice. Telecom companies replace on average a fifth of their equipment each year, Elmirghani says, giving them opportunities to buy more energy-efficient equipment.
The key drivers for the changes are not likely to be solely economic but will also depend on government mandates for companies to reduce their carbon footprints, he adds.
Besides changes in equipment and architecture, renewable energy sources also could drastically cut networks’ carbon footprints. Elmirghani has addressed the possibility of using solar and wind energy in optical telecom networks, for example. Today’s networks assume that their power sources are constant. Incorporating variable renewable sources raises a number of questions, such as how to deal with power that varies, where to place solar and wind farms, how many to employ, and how to route data to make the best use of renewable energy.
Elmirghani showed that running central network nodes on renewables best minimizes a network’s carbon footprint, and he has developed data-routing algorithms for networks that would use the largest amount of renewable energy. He also has demonstrated that it’s more efficient to build data centers closer to power sources than to customers so as not to waste energy over power lines. Fiber-optic communication networks would, of course, avoid that power loss. Google and other major players already have started to build data centers near hydroelectric dams.
DEVOTED TO GREEN
Elmirghani grew up in the northeastern Sudanese city of Port Sudan. He received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Sudan’s University of Khartoum in 1989. He later earned a Ph.D. in 1994 from the University of Huddersfield, in England, for work on optical receiver design, and he earned a doctor of science degree in 2014 in communication networks and systems from the University of Leeds.
In 2000, he joined Swansea University, in Wales, as a professor of electrical engineering. He went on to found and direct the university’s Institute of Advanced Telecommunications, developing cutting-edge concepts in optical wireless systems that led to significant data rate increases. With optical networks exploding in size and energy use, he recognized the importance of green ICT.
Now as co-chair of the Green ICT initiative, he has been helping to organize symposia, workshops, and conferences, including the IEEE OnlineGreenComm virtual conference on green communications held in November. He also is working to launch two publications—IEEE Transactions on Green ICT and IEEE Green ICT Magazine—this year and next.
Elmirghani says his main goal is to make all IEEE societies aware of the importance of green ICT so they’ll keep environmentally friendly metrics in mind when designing systems and products: “I hope to see ICT systems so well designed that we no longer have to worry about their carbon footprint.”
This article is part of our March 2016 special report on green ICT.
This article appears in the March 2016 print issue as “Building a More Eco-friendly Telecom Industry.”