Data centers fuel AI and crypto but could threaten climate, experts say – ABC News

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ABC News is taking a look at solutions for issues related to climate change and the environment with the series, “The Power of Us: People, The Climate, and Our Future.”

Artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency and remote work – all of these buzzy trends depend on processing power delivered by a sprawling worldwide network of data centers.

As demand surges for the power-intensive complexes, which typically span 100,000 square feet, the increased energy usage could jeopardize the fight to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change, experts told ABC News.

“The growth trend is super-fast,” Fengqi You, an energy engineering professor at Cornell University, told ABC News. “This is something I’m concerned about.”

In 2022, roughly 2,700 data centers in the U.S. accounted for over 4% of the nation’s electricity use, according to an International Energy Agency report released in January. By 2026, that share of electricity use is expected to reach 6%.

The proportion of U.S. electricity use for data centers is expected to continue to climb in the ensuing years, the report said, citing anticipated broader adoption of AI and crypto.

By 2026, the AI industry alone is expected to consume at least ten times its energy demand from just three years prior, the IEA report found.

Nvidia, a California-based firm that sells the majority of computer chips behind the AI boom, exemplifies this growth. Over three months ending in January, the company’s revenue surged 265% compared to the same period a year prior, an earnings report showed.

“If Nvidia keeps growing in the way they’re hoping they’ll grow and keeps selling in the way they’re planning to, that’s a fairly large increase in energy usage,” Arman Shehabi, a staff scientist in energy technologies at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told ABC News.

In response to ABC News’ request for comment, a Nvidia spokesperson said the company’s products would reduce energy use in data centers, since Nvidia uses accelerated computing enabled by specialized hardware called a graphics processing unit, or GPU.

“Replacing conventional servers with GPU-accelerated systems will reduce, not increase, energy use in datacenters,” the spokesperson said. “For example, a single GPU-accelerated server can replace hundreds of conventional servers to accomplish the same workload. And our GPUs enable AI-enhanced systems that will be more energy efficient across all industries, including transportation, manufacturing, logistics, and energy, among others.”

In its fiscal year 2023 annual corporate responsibility report, the company highlighted what they said were AI-driven tools helping to address climate change, including carbon reduction and management.

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Cryptocurrency, meanwhile, accounted for about 0.4% of global energy consumption in 2022, which was equivalent to the total energy footprint of the Netherlands that same year, the IEA report found. The primary strain on data centers imposed by crypto is the result of crypto mining, which is the computing process used to complete transactions and generate new coins.

The IAD71 Amazon Web Services data center in Ashburn, Virginia, March 27, 2024.

Nathan Howard/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In addition, the shift to remote work caused as much as a 35% spike in demand for data-center usage during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tevfik Kosar, professor of computer science and engineering at the University at Buffalo, told ABC News.

While the increased demand ebbed as many employees returned to work, the persistence of hybrid work arrangements has elevated such data-center demand above pre-pandemic levels, he added.

“That capacity increase didn’t really go back to normal,” Kosar said.

In all, the electric power sector accounted for nearly a quarter of U.S. carbon emissions in 2022, making it the second-largest industry emitter behind transportation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says on its website. More than half of the nation’s electricity came from fossil-fuel sources, including coal and natural gas, the EPA adds.

The information technology sector – of which data centers make up a key part – accounts for about 3% of global carbon emissions, which matches the share of worldwide emissions produced by the aviation industry, Kosar said.

“That is not so small,” he noted.

Shehabi, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said efforts are underway to improve the sustainability of data centers by connecting them with renewable sources of electricity. As data centers boom in the coming years, they will offer a test case for how to accommodate a spike in electricity usage while addressing the climate impact, Shehabi said.

“How we address that growth will set the stage of how we address the growth of other economic sectors over the coming decades in a way that’s sustainable,” Shehabi added.

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