Growing Internet access combined with the ubiquitous smart phone keep increasing the information and communication technology (ICT) sector’s power demand – 1.5% of total 2014 US electricity consumption came from just 113 ICT companies.
But as ICT sector power demand grows, so does the amount supplied by renewable energy, and according to research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), renewables could supply a whopping 48% of the ICT industry’s electricity mix by 2020, up from just 14% last year.
This projection is underlined by recent announcements from America’s biggest tech companies investing in wind and solar, and hints at the ability for renewables to supply long-term price stability while cutting the Internet’s emissions footprint.
ICT Industry Renewables Supply Growing With Overall Energy Demand
The ICT industry’s growth since 2000 is truly remarkable, and virtually any task or need of the average American can now be handled online. But each new mobile device or online purchase means more and more power demand – data centers alone consumed 91 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of power in 2013, or 2.4% of total annual US electricity consumption.
Comprehensive estimates of ICT sector power demand are nearly impossible to develop because companies are not required to report electricity consumption to government agencies, so NREL turned to the 113 companies who voluntarily reported power demand to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partners (GPP) program in 2014.
While the ICT industry is the largest economic sector participating in the GPP program including many of today’s biggest names like Google, Apple, and Intel, NREL acknowledges the GPP–ICT link isn’t comprehensive, noting data center service providers are largely excluded from the program.
A Green Gap Between ICT Industry & Renewables?
Regardless, renewable energy investments among the ICT giants participating in GPP are booming. Overall energy demand among the 113 GPP firms jumped 213% from 2007 to 2014, but renewable electricity use increased over 2,000% to 7.8 million MWh in 2014.
A large green gap still exists between ICT firms buying renewables and those who aren’t – 27 firms procure 100% or more of their total power supply from renewables, while 35 remain at 0%, with the remaining 51 somewhere between. “20 leading ICT companies have renewable energy goals…from 8% to 100% renewable electricity use, with an average goal of approximately 64%,” said John Miller of NREL.
NREL reports the type of renewable electricity purchases by ICT firms varied greatly from state to state, but 77% come from unbundled renewable energy credits where a company pays solar or wind farms a set price for every MWh generated. Renewable electrons are also sourced from utility “green pricing” programs and competitive renewable energy programs, but increasingly come from on-site renewable generation or direct power purchase agreements (PPAs), reflected in several notable announcements in 2015:
- Apple, which reported 491,000 MWh renewable energy use in 2014 for 83% of total supply, signed an $848 million deal for 130 megawatts of solar energy from First Solar and will power its $2 billion data control center in Arizona completely with renewable energy.
- Google, which sourced 879,153 MWh renewable electricity in 2014 for 38% of total supply, just announced it would convert a retired coal plant into renewable-powered data center and has announced multiple power purchase agreements this year.
- Intel, which topped NREL’s list with 3,061, 547 MWh of renewables for 100% of its 2014 supply, is installing one of the world’s largest wind micro-turbine installations atop its headquarters.
Between 31%–48% ICT Industry Renewable Energy Supply By 2020
The future of renewable electricity use among ICT firms will largely be determined by the degree they shift to cloud-based servers, which have the potential to reduce total electricity consumption by all U.S. businesses 87%, so NREL modeled out a low-use and a high-use case projection.
Under the low-use case, NREL assumes a high percentage shift to efficient cloud computing and zero annual electricity growth, a minimum 25% total renewable energy supply for companies already purchasing renewable power, and minimum 10% for those who aren’t already involved in the clean energy transition. Under this scenario, renewable electricity use more than doubles to 18.5 million MWh and 31% of total ICT industry use by 2020.
However, under the high-use case, which assumes a 4% annual electricity growth rate consistent with recent trends, a minimum 50% total renewable energy supply for companies already purchasing renewable power, and minimum 25% for those firms who aren’t buying renewables today. In this scenario, ICT industry renewable energy supplies more than triple to over 37 million MWh and 48% total power supply.
A Clean Future For America’s ICT Industry?
The future of America’s ICT industry lies with efficient and green energy, but the ultimate degree of renewable power adoption may hinge on companies learning from each other and becoming more familiar with the renewable procurement process and expand sustainability goals.
NREL touts the Corporate Renewables Partnership, composed of the Business for Social Responsibility’s Future of Internet Power initiative, Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center, and World Resources Institute’s Corporate Renewable Energy Buyer’s Principles as resources ICT firms should turn to for guidance on sourcing additional renewable power supplies.
So while the ultimate effect renewable electricity will have on America’s ICT industry is still to be determined, there’s no disputing the industry is well underway to a cleaner and cheaper future through our shift to a clean energy economy.
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