Energy Efficiency Could Cut Wireless Data Power Demand 90% By 2020

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An influx of smart phones has expanded wireless networks to the point that everyone, everywhere seems able to access the cloud. But looming mobile data needs cast a long shadow over electrical consumption – one that could quadruple global network power demands by 2015.

Smart phone power graph
Smart phone power graph image via Shutterstock

Good thing a new study from the GreenTouch consortium outlines energy efficiency measures that could reduce the net energy consumption of global data and communications networks up to 90% by 2020, compared to 2010 levels.

GreenTouch is comprised of 53 global telecommunications and research organizations, and was formed in 2010 with the goal of making the Internet and communications networks 1,000 times more energy efficient by 2015.

Energy Efficiency 1,000x Today’s Levels

By using a series of efficiency measures, GreenTouch predicts massive improvements. Mobile networks, among the most inefficient and fastest-growing telecom networks in terms of data volume, could improve energy efficiency 1,043 times current levels.

The new study evaluated potential energy efficiencies, technologies, and architectures that could be applied to cut power demand across different types of wireless networks by 2020.


Energy efficiency across fixed-line and core networks could also be improved, but at a lower rate. Fixed-access telecom networks could boost efficiency 449 times current levels, and core networks 95 times current levels.

But even these targets may ultimately understate the energy efficiency potential to be found in telecom networks. “Reducing energy by 90% is conservative, as we have many projects underway whose effects were not taken into account,” said Thierry Van Landegem, GreenTouch chairman.

Wireless Data Power Demands Quintupling By 2015

GreenTouch’s recommendations couldn’t come at a better time, because the growing wave of new smart phone users threatens to flood cloud power demand.

“The Power of Wireless Cloud,a recent white paper from the University of Melbourne’s Center for Energy Efficient Telecommunications (CEET), predicts booming wireless device use could increase the energy demands of mobile data up to 460% – from 9 million megawatt hours (MWh) in 2012 to between 32-43 million MWh by 2015. That growth represents the same carbon output as 4.9 million new cars on the road.

CEET wireless cloud energy forecast
Annual wireless cloud energy consumption chart via CEET

Cloud computing efficiency discussions tend to focus on data centers, but they’re just a fraction of this exponential growth. CEET’s research finds 90% of power demand from wireless-to-cloud access comes from network infrastructure, not servers or phones. This limits the potential effect of smart phone energy efficiency and data center cooling technology measures, and underlines the importance of reducing network demand.

CEET predicts the number of wireless cloud users will grow from 42.8 million in 2008 to just under 1 billion in 2014, an annual growth rate of 69% Energy for network infrastructure in developing countries like China or India often comes from coal-fired power plants, highlighting the climate implications of cutting electricity demand from consumer technology.

Boosting Physical + Technical Efficiencies To Cut Demand

So back to how to shrink the cloud’s energy shadow. Since the biggest inefficiency for mobile data access is broadcasting from cell towers to smart phones, GreenTouch’s main recommendation is to shrink the distance from signal to device.

Deploying “small cells” of networked signal towers in dense urban environments would require less energy by broadcasting closer to users, and allow the cells to turn on and off based on local demand levels.

Other efficiencies include technical fixes like sharing infrastructure across networks, discontinuing transmissions when network traffic is lowest, and using the GreenTouch Bit-Interleaved Passive Optical Network technology for fiber-to-home broadband networks.

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