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Without Energy, the Internet Is Just a Black Hole: Creating Energy Solutions for Information and Communications Technology

The following is a guest post by Nilmini Rubin, Vice President for International Development at Tetra Tech (an A4AI member organisation). 


Internet availability depends on energy reliability. Without energy, the internet simply cannot work. Roughly four billion people on the planet do not have access to the internet. More than one billion people do not even have access to electricity, and countless others have inadequate access to electricity and the internet. Expanding access to both the internet and energy can be done concurrently.


Already, roughly 10% of the world’s electricity consumption is used for information and communications technology (ICT). With the number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices increasing and the number of people gaining internet access going up, the amount of electricity consumed by the world’s data centers is expected to at least triple in the next decade. This will create an even larger demand for energy.


We can break energy demand from the information, communication, and technology (ICT) sector into four parts — data centers, wireless networks, end user devices, and ICT hardware manufacturing. For many data centers, the cost of buying computer servers is now less than the total cost of buying the electricity to run those servers over their four-year life. As computing hardware costs continue to drop, the share of spending on energy for data centers increases. High energy costs become a barrier to low-cost internet access.


The expansion of digital technologies is fundamentally changing when and where we need energy. Most of these devices need constant, reliable electricity, and increasing demand for mobile network coverage—in rural and remote areas—requires electricity services to reach beyond the traditional grid. That electricity will need to come from a mix of sources. Energy is like a kale salad. If it’s just kale, it doesn’t taste good. You have to mix it up.


As Google has written, “Neither the wind nor the sun are constantly available resources. They come and go with the weather, while Google’s data centers operate 24×7. No matter what, we’d need to be connected to the grid to access ‘conventional’ power to accommodate our constant load. The plain truth is that … renewable energy alone is not sufficiently reliable to power a data center.”


At the same time, declining costs for renewable energy and storage systems mean that more renewable energy can be reliably integrated into the electrical grid. At Tetra Tech, our teams work with utilities, private customers, and governments around the world to make renewable energy generation behave like a conventional power plant.


While the internet needs energy, energy can benefit from the internet too. At the recent IEEE Internet Inclusion event in Washington, D.C., the World Bank’s Anna Lerner asserted that “the time is right to integrate digital technologies and intelligent solutions in energy systems” and noted that some energy ministers want to leapfrog over current technology. Smart grids and IoT can significantly improve the efficiency of electricity systems. Smart meters can bolster payments for energy. Smart thermostats can cut energy waste.


To support internet and energy connectivity, countries will need make policy changes, suggested Dr. Mohammad Shahidehpour from Veriown. One type of policy change, identified by Tetra Tech, would be to end the requirement in some countries that all renewable power be connected to the grid. Changing this policy would allow data centers to be powered through decentralized renewable energy generation without having to worry that their renewable energy production is going to destabilize the local grid.


On the policy front, international momentum is building around the build-once approach to infrastructure development. An example of the build-once approach would be electricity and internet distributors sharing towers for their wires. Another would be electricity and internet distributors coordinating to lay wires under new roads. That idea is at the core of the bipartisan Digital Global Access Policy (GAP) Act, led by Chairman Ed Royce, that passed the U.S. House of Representatives without a single dissenting vote. The World Bank just developed a toolkit on cross-sector infrastructure sharing; IEEE has a working group focused on developing build-once guidelines; and the Telecom Regulator Authority of India is launching a pilot project for common duct policy. John Garrity, of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), flagged that USAID is mapping energy and internet infrastructure to find potential synergies.


Garrity also recognized the importance of maximizing public-private partnerships in efforts to promote connectivity. Melissa Sassi shared how Microsoft is partnering with governments, social entrepreneurs, local operators, and non-profits to use TV white space to provide Super WiFi in developing countries that can be powered with solar panels.


As Tetra Tech works with both renewable and fossil-fuel projects around the world, we are seeing clear ways to integrate both power the internet and connect the billions who do not yet have internet access. Governments, donors and implementers must remove unnecessary stovepipes and consider developing coordinated internet and energy policy projects and financing when it makes sense.


As Pope Francis asked in his TED talk, “how wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion?” Helping all seven billion people on the planet have access to electricity and the internet, and ensuring energy is available to power that internet, is the challenge of our shared future.


About the author

Nilmini Rubin, vice president for international development at Tetra Tech, works to expand electricity and internet connectivity. Prior to joining Tetra Tech, Nilmini served as a senior advisor to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and as a senior aide to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the White House’s National Security Council, the U.S. Department of Treasury, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum. She holds a Master of Business Administration and a bachelor’s degree in economics and development studies from the University of California, Berkeley.


All opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own. No endorsement for any company, service, or other entity is given or implied.