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Why power-hungry Ontarians need to take a new approach to technology

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A 2017 Greenpeace report estimates that information tech uses 7 per cent of global electricity. (iStock.com/PeopleImages)
A 2017 Greenpeace report estimates that information tech uses 7 per cent of global electricity. (iStock.com/PeopleImages)

When I get up in the night, I don’t need to flick on a light. My way is guided by a multitude of green and red dots — from the modem, TV, microwave, printer. They’re always on, perpetually drawing power, just like the row of chargers on my kitchen counter.

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And when my family logs onto our devices — we have many, and we’re not alone; Canadians are expected to own more than 29 million smartphones by 2022 — we pull electricity from the Ontario grid, as well as from faraway places via remote servers.

We don’t own any so-called Internet of Things devices, such as smart thermostats, always on and always connected. We don’t have any energy-greedy Bitcoin, though my bank has been testing blockchain, the secure coding process behind it. Still, our tech-driven energy needs just seem to keep growing. How much power are we burning through?

“It’s a mixed picture; it’s not as clear as you would like,” says Jatin Nathwani, a University of Waterloo engineering professor and the executive director of Waterloo’s Institute for Sustainable Energy. It’s tough to pin down just how much energy tech uses: as technology improves, it gets more efficient — but then we use it more. Now, we need additional gizmos to help systems conserve power — but we have to use them. Looks like, in the end, tech’s true energy footprint will depend on our behaviour.
The scary stats

A 2017 Greenpeace report estimates that information tech uses 7 per cent of global electricity. (iStock.com/PeopleImages)
A 2017 Greenpeace report estimates that information tech uses 7 per cent of global electricity. (iStock.com/PeopleImages)

Technology use spans the globe and pervades every aspect of our lives. That makes tabulating its energy impact difficult. A 2017 Greenpeace report estimates that information tech uses 7 per cent of global electricity. That figure will only increase, given that the internet is expected to see a threefold increase in traffic by 2020. A 2015 report estimated that — in the worst-case scenario — communications technologies could use as much as 51 per cent of global electricity and contribute to 23 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030.

Energy-intensive culprits include server farms that host email, the cloud, and streaming services. “Server farms are real, and they are huge, and they consume large amounts of energy,” says Nathwani. Most of the power is used to cool the servers as they hum along. Since about 40 per cent of the world’s energy is derived from coal, the location of a server farm affects its carbon impact: these data centres create about 2 per cent of the world’s emissions, putting them on par with the aviation industry.

Then there’s Bitcoin and the blockchain technology used to keep the virtual currency secure. “Bitcoin is crazy,” says Ron Dizy, managing director of the Advanced Energy Centre, at MaRS, in Toronto. Estimates suggest that Bitcoin mining — the elaborate coding process behind the digital currency — uses up 58 terawatt hours per year worldwide, about the same as the energy usage of Colombia. Roughly 30 homes could be powered for a day with the energy needed for a single Bitcoin transaction. Dizy says 90 per cent of Bitcoin is mined off servers in coal-dependent China.
The real rub

Nathwani says reality never lives up to the hype when it comes to tech’s energy use. “People kept saying the internet is going to consume a huge percentage of the world’s energy, and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. It never happened,” he says.

That’s mainly because our tech keeps getting more energy efficient. Dizy personally installed six computer screens in the wall of his kitchen (he’s an engineer; they do such things) several years ago. Then, two years back, he replaced the 50-watt screens that drew considerable power on standby mode with new, 26-watt models that draw 1 watt when powered off. He saw the difference on his energy bill.

So your old basement TV uses up more than your new flatscreen in the family room. Dizy says that if your old or third-party charger feels warm, it’s inefficient; energy is being converted to heat. Get a new, name-brand version, and it won’t have the same problem.

Tech companies keep improving their server farms with more efficient machines stationed in such chilly places as Iceland and Sweden. The much-hyped 5G wireless network — in which the Ontario government is investing $63 million over five years — is supposed to be more energy and cost effective than today’s 4G and LTE networks.

Bitcoin, too, has promise. “There’s self-regulation in Bitcoin,” Nathwani says: the system regulates how much Bitcoin there is in the market (many fearful energy calculations are based on the idea that Bitcoin will grow exponentially), and the cost of energy gets factored into its value. Nathwani says the currently popular proof-of-work algorithm, which relies on energy-intensive mining to validate transactions, may soon be replaced by the proof-of-stake system, which can be done on laptops and rewards Bitcoin creators who already own currency.
Conservation tech

These advancements aren’t enough to keep our devices carbon-neutral or to stop them from overburdening the grid. What’s needed is even more tech. Internet of Things gadgets can help us reduce our everyday electricity use, not to mention the natural gas many of us use for heat (Dizy notes that 70 per cent of the power we use goes toward heating our homes and our water). As part of a pilot project started in 2015 by Alectra Utilities and the Independent Electricity System Operator, 20 homes in York Region were equipped with solar panels, smart monitoring devices and software; the houses were able to save hundreds of dollars most months, and sometimes generated excess power that they could feed back into the grid for a power-bill rebate. “The energy consumption used up by Bitcoin falls apart in relation to this kind of use of energy,” says Nathwani, who’s been involved with the pilot.

But you have to purchase, install, and use these devices. There are privacy concerns and costs. Not everyone wants to change. Case in point: when Ontario installed smart meters in homes across the province and adjusted the price of electricity during peak hours, we kept running our dishwashers and dryers as usual.

It’s been easy for us to adopt the latest smartphone technology and latch on to streaming services, but some tech we find harder to embrace. Our own behaviour when it comes to energy-saving devices is the final, key element in satisfying tech’s growing hunger for power.

Diane Peters is a writer and editor. She teaches at Ryerson University.

source : https://tvo.org/article/current-affairs/the-next-ontario/why-power-hungry-ontarians-need-to-take-a-new-approach-to-technology

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