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Managing energy consumption to meet AI demands

Image: Adobe Stock / swillklitch

With the booming popularity of AI driving demand for data storage, Jodie Eaton, CEO of Shell Energy UK, explains why managing energy consumption and maximising operational efficiencies should be seen not as challenges but opportunities for data centre operators.

The explosion of access to tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT has transitioned AI from a supporting technology into the forefront of public consciousness. We’ve seen the likes of Rishi Sunak, Elon Musk, world leaders and tech titans come together to both celebrate the economic opportunities presented by AI and warn us against the geopolitical risks it poses.

Whether AI is destined to be humanity’s friend or foe, there is little doubt that AI development will continue to accelerate. However, AI requires extensive digital infrastructure and a reliable, consistent energy supply. Make no mistake, the computing power needed to operate AI is incredibly energy intensive. In a survey of IT buyers and companies in US and Europe that adopted AI, 88% said that the need for computing power had risen dramatically, with the demand more than doubling for nearly half (47%) of respondents.

Another recent study suggests that the AI industry as a whole could consume as much energy annually as a country the size of the Netherlands by 2027 (approximately 85 to 134 TWh). Right now, data centres around the world are responsible for 3% of electricity demand, but predictions from Vertiv suggest that this will continue to grow as the popularity of AI increases and the technology is increasingly integrated with products and services.

Yet, with rising consumption come rising costs, and with volatile energy prices and UK businesses already struggling financially, data centre operators must carefully consider how best to take advantage of the AI revolution and turn these risks into opportunities.

The drive toward net-zero

An opportunity for data centres looking to increase their capacities and take advantage of the AI boom is to synergise profitability, energy consumption and efficiency as part of a greater push to net-zero. Sourcing clean energy, reducing electricity use, and minimising direct and indirect carbon emissions are key performance metrics for businesses seeking net-zero pathways.

The UK made a pledge to reach net zero by 2050 and there is a growing pressure from policymakers for UK businesses to align with nationwide goals. All energy-intensive businesses, data centre operators included, can get ahead of the curve by putting net-zero strategies in place now.

To do this, data centre managers can adopt strategies which envelope cost-cutting, emissions reductions, renewable energy and energy efficiency, alongside implementing proper monitoring and reporting practice, to bring all these elements together into a wider sustainability package. Not only could this protect data centres against volatile energy prices and provide a buffer against a fluctuating economic landscape, but also it could provide a boost to businesses’ sustainability credentials and improve market competitiveness.

Monitoring and measuring energy use

Accurately measuring energy usage is fundamental as it provides an agreed baseline against which to benchmark progress. Traditionally, the set points for temperature in data centres have been between 18 and 27°C (with specific ranges agreed for humidity). In the UK, data centres use Power Utilisation Effectiveness (PUE) to gauge consumption. This figure is based on the ratio of total facility energy divided by the amount of energy used to power the ICT systems and is expressed as a number.

As a result, data centres in the UK typically operate with a PEU number between 1.5 and 1.8, with the EU average being 1.6. In centres operating at a PUE of 2 and above, more energy is being used to provide the supporting infrastructure than is supplied to the ICT equipment. This suggests that more energy is being used to ‘cool’ the infrastructure than is strictly necessary – so is a useful measure of efficiency.

In order to make meaningful progress when it comes to energy management and decarbonisation, data centre operators must fully understand the energy consumption of their IT estate.

Procuring renewable energy whether through on-site generation, renewable energy supply contracts, or power purchase agreements (PPAs) will support decarbonisation goals. An increasingly popular option for data centres, PPAs offer transparency around investment in renewable energy as well as improved long-term certainty of pricing. There are solutions that can be tailored to demand across both single and multiple sites.

Quick energy wins

Many of the quick wins, in terms of greater energy efficiencies, are remarkably simple. Some operations run well established cooling systems which may be very energy inefficient. Knowing your current PUE may provide you with new information that will help you make informed decision about improving the performance of cooling systems.  Likewise, real-time active monitoring of energy use by site will enable anomalies to be quickly identified and dealt with.

Monitoring can be boosted by occupation sensors and other smart technologies that can adjust energy use to real-time requirements,  automatically switch off lights in empty rooms and adjust heating levels for example. Small changes can amount to a big difference and savings can be invested in more efficient equipment and technologies.

There is no single solution when it comes to optimising energy efficiency and every business will benefit from bringing in expertise to identify the steps it can take in both the short and long-term to bring energy use under tight control.

For many data centres, the priorities are to decarbonise operations and mitigate environmental impact. Collaboration with their energy supplier can make a critical difference to the success or failure of plans to transform energy use. 

Picture of Jodie Eaton
Jodie Eaton
CEO of Shell Energy UK Ltd

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