Will Renewable Sources be Enough?
by Birgitta Jansen
NB: This article originally appeared in Desert Report. The publisher has kindly given us permission to republish this as a blog post.)
We understand the need to end our reliance on fossil fuels – including those used to generate electricity. We already use hydro-electric power and, to some extent, nuclear power, but energy provided by wind and solar is becoming increasingly popular and is seen as viable alternative. But how viable is it really?
Between 1921 and 1950, consumption of electrical energy increased by a factor of thirteen.1 Although this growth in electrical usage slowed significantly in the most recent decade, it will almost certainly increase again as, for example, electric vehicles become the norm,2 and as residential dwellings come to rely more heavily upon electricity for heating, cooling, and other household uses.3 But there is another serious issue waiting in the shadows that has not received the kind of coverage that it should. The electronic technology industries are poised to massively increase their consumption of energy, mostly electrical. It is this increase in demand which is to be addressed in this article.
5G is the 5th generation of wireless technology. This is promoted as not just another G. It is a G specifically designed to provide universal connectivity unlike anything we’ve seen before. The scale of the network and necessary infrastructure is enormous. Although it is not yet fully developed, it has already been rolled out in a number of countries.4 5G is a stunningly complex, capable, and very ambitious telecommunications system.
The telecommunication industry expects that by increasing high speed connectivity the system can efficiently provide the capacity for massive data growth. 5G is described as not only a lot faster than anything that has come before, but also provide greater connectivity for many devices simultaneously. The system is intended to allow for uninterrupted sharing, streaming, and browsing, have superior network reliability, imperceptible latency, and a huge increase in network capability.5
5G enables “mission-critical communications” which include, for example, remote control of critical infrastructure, vehicles, and medical procedures. 5G is intended to connect a multitude of embedded sensors in virtually everything. This is referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT).6 5G is to be a vast network with top speed connectivity between everyone and everywhere. “One suggested target is a 1000x increase over the current capacity.” 7 In addition, 5G is expected to drive global growth, increase economic output into the trillions of dollars, and create millions of new jobs. Ultimately it will change the way the world connects and communicates. The industry claims that these developments are in response to “the world’s demand for high speed connectivity.” 8
But . . . there are dark sides, including for instance the energy needed to power the system. 5G is understood to be “power-hungry.” 9 This is described in numerous papers and websites, and it appears to be widely accepted.
There are a number of reasons for this. 5G necessitates an immense infrastructure that will certainly be costly not only in financial terms but also in energy costs. More specifically, the 5G infrastructure includes base stations (specialized forwarders for the cellular mobile network that provides wireless connectivity to devices on the move).10 These base stations adapted to 5G will draw up to twice (or more) the power of 4G base stations.11
Because the system uses higher frequencies (millimeter wavelengths), indoor penetration is not optimum. Therefore the small cells will need to be installed approximately 250 meters apart especially in densely populated areas. New York City for example, will require approximately 3,135,200 small cells that will have to be manufactured and maintained.13 Also needed will be many miles of fiber optic cable, network equipment, and more.14 These are just a few examples of the many changes required.
The current mobile system uses wireless connectivity to cell phones and tablets. But this will increasingly include cars, drones, industrial and agricultural equipment, robots, home appliances, medical devices, and so on.15 Despite the industry’s assurances that 5G is more power efficient, the sheer increase in deployment is thought to more than cancel out any power efficiency in the system.16 The expectation is that telecommunications network operators will face significant growth in their energy costs.17 In fact 5G is likely to double or even triple energy consumption once the networks are fully operational. Overall energy demands are described as “staggering.” To address this issue, the telecommunications industry is actively researching and developing ways to address this “energy problem.” 18
Meanwhile 6G is already in development and promises to offer a connection speed that is ten times faster than 5G and is expected to completely revolutionize mobile connections as we currently know them.19 Clearly the need for electricity can be expected to continue increasing.
Oh, one more thing: customers will need new smart phones and other devices that are compatible with the 5G network system. Perhaps we can expect to need new ones again when 6G rolls out?
Satoshi Nakamoto (the name used most likely by an anonymous developer or group), launched the world’s first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, in 2009. It is now the best known and most popular cryptocurrency by market capitalization.20 Many others have since followed. His intention was to create a decentralized payments platform that would revolutionize how everything was bought and sold. He believed that his system would enable quick, borderless transactions. It didn’t work out that way. Instead of facilitating financial transactions, cryptocurrencies have mainly become speculative assets. 21
Cryptocurrency is a virtual currency designed to be used as a form of payment in the same way money is used. But cryptocurrency is outside the control of any one person, group, or entity. This means that there is no third-party involvement in any of the financial transactions. It uses encryption techniques to control the creation of monetary units and to verify the transfer of funds.22
Blockchains were invented specifically for cryptocurrency. They are the decentralized ledgers of all transactions that take place. Entries are encoded. Transactions are recorded in “blocks” and linked together on a “chain” providing a complete record of all cryptocurrency transactions. This technology enables the existence of cryptocurrency.23
Regardless of the widely differing perspectives and opinions about cryptocurrency, there is one thing all appear to agree on: “The digital gold rush has come with a catch: massive electrical consumption.” In other words, “Bitcoin is extremely energy-hungry.” One frequently mentioned example is that it uses more energy than the annual electrical consumption of Finland or Denmark.24 The problem seems to be the process of mining the cryptocurrency which uses computers (competitive mining computers called rigs) to do so. Even increasing machine efficiency doesn’t appear to ameliorate the tremendous need for electricity.
This is how the mining is described (although somehow not easy to comprehend): “Bitcoin, along with other cryptocurrencies, works on a simple concept. Every ten minutes the bitcoin protocol – essentially, the code underlying bitcoin – generates a math equation with a numerical solution. In order to mine bitcoin, the miner needs to guess what that solution is. As more people (i.e. computers) try to guess that number, the protocol adjusts itself to make the number harder to guess, so more computing power is needed to make more guesses quickly.” 25 When multiple miners participate, the computations increase in complexity. Electrical usage increases as they compete for rewards, and the “work” that needs to be done to find the right numerical sequence increases as well. This in turn means that electrical consumption continues to escalate.
More recently, a number of companies started giant mining operations. These are huge facilities with many racks with specialized bitcoin-mining computers which consume even greater amounts of electricity. Since these operations can run quite hot, more cooling is needed to maintain the equipment’s functioning. And once again, electrical consumption increases. The bottom line is that cryptocurrency involves the need for vast amounts of power.26
Data centers are physical facilities that organizations use to store, process, and disseminate data and applications for daily operations. Almost all businesses and governments build and maintain their own data centers or they have access to someone else’s. There are also large data center services provided by hosts like Amazon, Microsoft, Sony and Google.27, 28 At present there are two kinds of data centers. Those developed first are now referred to as legacy data centers. Newer iterations are the cloud based data centers which are increasing in popularity. Electricity is critical to data centers because no electricity means no data centers. In fact to make everything run smoothly, the equipment needs a constant and steady supply of uninterrupted electricity.29
As more and more data is produced, the need for electricity also continues to grow. In the legacy data centers, the servers, lights, cooling, monitors, humidifiers, and other critical IT equipment pieces require electricity. To begin to understand what that means, we need to know that the sheer size of these data centers is staggering. They range from 100 square-foot buildings – considered small – to hyper-scale 400.000 square-foot data centers that house thousands of data cabinets. A data cabinet is a server or a data storage cabinet that can be placed on the floor space to organize IT equipment and data.30 Whenever someone uses any internet service, it will connect to one of the thousands of data centers around the world.
In 2006 there were 11 million servers in data centers worldwide. In 2020 there were 18 million.31 Studies have shown that as humankind’s annual digital activities increase, the overall energy consumption will also increase. Now it is especially the large cloud data centers (often referred to as hyperscale centers) that are steadily increasing their electrical consumption.
The industry’s stated intention is to balance the increase by significantly investing in “green initiatives” such as energy efficient equipment and the use of renewable energy – mostly wind and solar.32 Considering that data centers are already among the highest consumers of electrical power,33 this brings us to the question: can wind and solar provide enough power to satisfy industry’s continually increasing demand?
It is interesting to take a look at what Robert Bryce calls, “the Giant Five: Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft,” because most of the services they provide are heavily dependent on the growing use of electricity. 34
For example Google, regarded as one of the world’s richest and most powerful corporations, is wholly dependent on electrical power; massive quantities of it. Like all members of “the Giant Five,” it has its own electric grids to provide continuous electricity to data centers and fiber-optic networks. In addition Google’s use of electricity is doubling approximately every three years. As the information available on-line increases, electrical consumption increases.35
Bryce writes, “Electricity is the world’s most important and fastest-growing form of energy. It is also fueling nearly every aspect of the Information Age. Google represents the most obvious manifestation of this merger of bits and electrons.” 36 Growth in this business appears unstoppable. Electrical power is relied on to make this growth happen.
This article raises the question, “Where will all this electricity come from?” and it illustrates how massive this demand already is and how it will continue to increase. Furthermore the industries described in this article are not the only ones requiring massive amounts of electricity to power their operations, especially with the global trend toward increased consumption and economic growth. There are many other industries and commercial ventures requiring increasing amounts of electric power. Residential use of electrical power will increase for heating/cooling and various appliances. The electrification of transportation is already ongoing. Furthermore the human population continues to grow which will increase the need for power to operate all that we use.
Coincident with this significant increase in demand for electrical power, we are attempting to ameliorate climate change and other environmental issues. Generating electricity in a way that does not negatively impact the environment appears to be elusive as illustrated by several articles in this issue of Desert Report.
This raises additional questions: What will the impact of uncontrolled growth be on our planet? And how will the electricity be distributed? Our aging power grid cannot handle the current needs for electricity as described in a June 2, 2022 article in the Washington Post.37 Will power outages become the norm? It is unclear what is being done to address this.
The logical conclusion appears to be that the only way to adequately meet these challenges is to slow down or even decrease growth. The companies that drive this growth cannot be expected to support any movement toward this. It would threaten not only jobs but, more importantly to companies, profits. But what do we want, as consumers, as citizens, as people? This brings us right back to “Fundamental Choices.” We do need to slow down; we do need to decrease growth and consumption. Our current upward trajectory is, most likely, not sustainable. Therefore our present and our future depend on the choices that we, individually and collectively, make now.
Birgitta Jansen has been an active volunteer in Death Valley National Park. Currently residing in British Columbia, she is a managing editor of the Desert Report, has written previously on a number of environmental topics, and has completed a book about the October 2015 flash floods in Death Valley NP
1. Electricity Explained; Use of Electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) last updated May 3, 2022. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/use-of-electricity.php.
Accessed May 2, 2022
2. Clean-Car rules: California unveils proposed measure to ban new gasoline-fueled cars, by, Rachel Becker, April 12, 2022. Cal Matters. https://calmatters.org/environment/2022/04/california-electric-cars-rule-zero-emissions/
Accessed June 2022
3. Energy Commission Adopts Updated Building Standards to improve Efficiency, Reduce Emissions from Homes and Businesses. California Energy Commission, News Release, August 11, 2021. https://www.energy.ca.gov/news/2021-08/energy-commission-adopts-updated-building-standards-improve-efficiency-reduce-0 (Session Timed Out)
4. WHAT IS 5G RAN? Ericsson Networks (video clip). https://www.ericsson.com/en/ran. Accessed June 19, 2022.
Everything you need to know about 5G, Qualcomm- the world’s leading wireless technology innovator. https://www.qualcomm.com/5g/what-is-5g. Accessed June 19, 2022
5. Ibid (video clip).
6. 5 Things You Should Know About 5G Cellular, by Lou Frenzel, July 10, 2015. Microwaves & RFhttps://www.mwrf.com/technologies/systems/article/21846328/5-things-you-should-know-about-5g-cellular. accessed June 19, 2022.
8. WHAT IS 5G RAN? Ericsson Networks. https://www.ericsson.com/en/ran. Accessed June 19, 2022.
Mobile data traffic outlook; 5G share of mobile traffic growing. Ericsson Networks. https://www.ericsson.com/en/reports-and-papers/mobility-report/dataforecasts/mobile-traffic-forecast. Accessed July 3, 2022
9. 5G Webinar: Why is 5G so power hungry? What can engineers do about it? By Martin Rowe, February 10 2022. 5G Technology World. https://www.5gtechnologyworld.com/webinar-why-is-5g-so-power-hungry-what-can-engineers-do-about-it/ Accessed June 6, 2022.
10. 5G Mobile Networks: A systems Approach. Chapter 3: Basic Architecture. By Systems Approach LLC 2022. https://5g.systemsapproach.org/arch.html. Accessed June 28, 2022.
11. Operators facing power crunch by Matt Walker, March 27, 2020. MTN Consulting. https://www.mtn-c.com/product/operators-facing-power-cost-crunch/ Accessed June 13, 2022
12. 5G Base stations use a lot more energy than 4G base stations. By Linda Hardesty. MTN. April 3, 2020. https://www.fiercewireless.com/tech/5g-base-stations-use-a-lot-more-energy-than-4g-base-stations-says-mtn. Accessed June 28, 2022.
13. WHAT WILL 5G MEAN FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?By Claire Curran, January 30, 2020. The Henry M Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. https://jsis.washington.edu/news/what-will-5g-mean-for-the-environment/ accessed June 12, 2022.
14. Infrastructure. By Nathan Peres. https://www.democracylab.uwo.ca/Archives/2019_2020_research/5g_in_central_europe/Nathan—Infrastructure-2.pdf. Accessed June 18, 2022.
15. 5G Mobile Networks: A Systems Approach. Chapter 3: Basic Architecture. By Systems Approach LLC 2022. https://5g.systemsapproach.org/arch.html. Accessed June 28, 2022.
16. 5G-era Mobile Network Cost Evolution, August 28, 2019. https://www.gsma.com/futurenetworks/wiki/5g-era-mobile-network-cost-evolution/accessed June 17, 2022
17. Operators facing power crunch by Matt Walker, March 27, 2020. MTN Consulting. https://www.mtn-c.com/product/operators-facing-power-cost-crunch/ Accessed June 13, 2022
18. 5G Webinar: Why is 5G so power hungry? What can engineers do about it? By Martin Rowe, February 10 2022. 5G Technology World. https://www.5gtechnologyworld.com/webinar-why-is-5g-so-power-hungry-what-can-engineers-do-about-it/ Accessed June 6, 2022.
19. Mobile Web Traffic Stats and Facts in 2022. By Ogi Djuraskovic, January 10, 2022. https://firstsiteguide.com/mobile-traffic-stats/. Accessed July 3, 2022.
20. A guide to Bitcoin by Jake Frankenfield. June 13, 2022.
https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/bitcoin.asp. Accessed June 17, 2022
21. Forbes Advisor, Why Does Bitcoin Use So Much Energy? John Schmidt, Editor, Farran Powell, Editor. https://www.forbes.com/advisor/investing/cryptocurrency/bitcoins-energy-usage-explained/ Accessed June 19, 2022.
22. A guide to Bitcoin. By Jake Frankenfield. June 13, 2022.
https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/bitcoin.asp. Accessed June 13 and 17, 2022
23. Making sense of bitcoin, cryptocurrency and blockchain – PwC.
24. The daunting task of making cryptocurrency climate-friendly. By Neel Dhanesha, Apr 18, 2022 VOX. https://www.vox.com/recode/23005493/cryptocurrency-bitcoin-climate-friendly. Accessed April 19, 2022
25. Ibid. Accessed April 21, 2022
https://www.forbes.com/advisor/investing/cryptocurrency/bitcoins-energy-usage-explained/ Accessed June 19, 2022.
27. What is a Data Center? https://www.paloaltonetworks.com/cyberpedia/what-is-a-data-center. Accessed June 28, 2022. Palo Alto Networks (gobal cybersecurity); Cyberpedia
28. What is a Data Center. Cisco Systems Canada Co, Data Center Virtualization. https://www.cisco.com/c/en_ca/solutions/data-center-virtualization/what-is-a-data-center. Accessed June 28, 2022.
29. Data Center power Design and Features; Digital Reality. https://www.digitalrealty.com/data-center-power. Accessed May 27, 2022.
30. What Does Data Cabinet Mean? Safeopedia Inc. https://www.safeopedia.com/definition/7772/data-cabinet. Accessed July 29, 2022.
31. The Real Amount of Energy A Data Center Uses. By Clarissa Garcia, AKCP, February, 2022. https://www.akcp.com/articles/the-real-amount-of-energy-a-data-center-use/#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20the%20data%20center,require%20104%20TWh%20in%202020. Accessed May 27, 2022.
32. How much energy do data centers consume? By Paul Kirvan. Published April 26, 2022
https://www.techtarget.com/searchdatacenter/tip/How-much-energy-do-data-centers-consume. Accessed May 27, 2022.
33. The Real Amount of Energy A Data Center Uses. By Clarissa Garcia, AKCP, February, 2022. https://www.akcp.com/articles/the-real-amount-of-energy-a-data-center-use/#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20the%20data%20center,require%20104%20TWh%20in%202020. Accessed May 27, 2022.
34. How Google Powers Its Monopoly With Enough Electricity For Entire Countries. By Robert Bryce, Contributor, October 21, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertbryce/2020/10/21/googles-dominance-is-fueled-by-zambia-size-amounts-of-electricity/?sh=2c1dd9ac68c9. Accessed June 19, 2022.
37. A Summer of Blackouts? Wheezing Power Grid leaves States At Risk. Why the grid could buckle in large areas of the country as temperatures rise. By Evan Halper. June 2, 2022.
Accessed July 5, 2022.