Internet energy consumption: data, models, forecasts?

This data-file aims to provide helpful numbers into the energy consumption of the internet (800TWH in 2022), the energy intensity of end-to-end internet processes (140Wh/GB of ultimate traffic) and projections of future internet energy demand (doubling by 2030?). Input assumptions to the model can be flexed. Underlying data are from technical papers.

Our best estimate is that the internet accounted for 800 TWH of global electricity in 2022, which is 2.5% of all global electricity. Despite this area being a kind of analytical minefield, we have attempted to construct a simple model for the future energy demands of the internet, which decision-makers can flex, based on data and assumptions (chart below).

Internet traffic has been rising at a CAGR of 30%, as shown by the data use of developed world households, rising to almost 3 TB per user per year by 2023. The scatter also shows a common theme in this data-file, which is that different estimates from different sources can vary widely.

Future internet traffic is likely to continue rising. By 2022 there were 5bn global internet users underpinning 4.7 Zettabytes (ZB) of internet traffic. Users will grow. Traffic per user will likely grow. We have pencilled in some estimates, but uncertainty is high.

The energy intensity of internet traffic spans across data-centers, transmission networks and local networking equipment. Again, different estimates from different technical papers can vary by an order of magnitude. But a first general rule is that the numbers have declined sharply, sometimes halving every 2-3 years.

The current energy intensity of the internet is estimated at 140 Wh/GB in our base case, and broken down in the waterfall chart below, using our findings from technical papers and the spec sheets of underlying products (e.g., offered by companies such as Dell).

Energy intensity of internet processes will almost certainly decline in the future, as traffic volumes rise. Again, we have pencilled in some estimates to our models, which can be flexed.

The electricity consumption of the internet will also include additional processing power for blockchains (crypto-currencies) and artificial intelligence engines, layering in on top of today’s core internet processes. Thus we can derive an approximate model below.

The energy consumption of AI is also quantified in a back-up tab, to substantiate the numbers above. We model a 200x increase in total global processing capacity in ZFLOPS from 2020 to 2030, accompanied by a 40x increase in future computer performance in GFLOPS per Watt (chart below). This yields 500 TWH of AI demand around 2030.

Please download the model to stress-test your own estimates for the energy intensity of the internet. It is not impossible for total electricity demand to ‘go sideways’ (i.e., it does not increase). It is also possible for the electricity demand of the internet to exceed our estimates by a factor of 2-3x if the pace of productivity improvements slows down.

Copyright: Thunder Said Energy, 2019-2023.