Decarbonising digital technology with innovation

Although the carbon footprint of information and communications technologies (ICT) is on the increase, the industry is working towards being more sustainable and improving its energy efficiency : renewable energies, free cooling techniques, artificial intelligence optimisation, circular economy, etc.

Network densification technologies improve the quality of service and energy efficiency.

Hidden from sight, Internet infrastructure has a substantial environmental impact.

Base-stations with lower fossil fuel consumption

To reduce the environmental impact in the era of 5G, in particular carbon emissions, providers are taking steps by persuing two main stragegies.  Firstly, they are developing new technologies in order to improve performance and energy efficiency. Secondly, they are reducing their dependancy on fossil fuels by turning to alternative energy sources and models of self-sufficiency.

Using inexpensive and low-energy equipment, network densifying technologies like Massive MIMO (Multiple-Input Multiple-Output) and Small cells (which, respectively, consist in deploying a larger number of antennas in base-stations and multiplying access points to the network) fall under the first strategy. They must be able to respond to the exponential increase in data traffic, while improving the quality of service and energy efficiency.

The other strategy for diversifying energy sources is being implemented in Japan by NTT DoCoMo. The leading mobile operator in the archipelago has been carrying out research and development activities on sustainable base-stations for several years, while being more environmentally friendly and more resilient to disasters at the same time. The goal? To maximise the use of local renewable energy while guaranteeing service during power outages.

Set-up since 2013, these “green” stations are equipped with photovoltaic panels with an energy production capacity greater than the station’s consumption, Li-ion batteries which store surplus energy in order to cover the station’s needs when there is insufficient sunlight, and controllers that allow power to be monitored and managed and that mediate between the different sources of electricity.

Datacenters : renewable energy and free cooling

In order to limit carbon emissions incurred by datacenters, one solution consists in using renewable energy.   Located in a former NATO munitions warehouse, in Rennesøy in Norway, and renowned for being amoung  the lowest carbon emitters in the world, the Green Mountain datacenters run on hydraulic energy.

Air conditioning, which maintains the server rooms below a certain temperature, is one of the main sources of energy consumption in datacenters, which generate a lot of heat.

Several companies look to free cooling, a passive cooling system which uses outside air to cool down the servers.  Others turn to liquid cooling to extract and evacuate heat from IT systems.

Furthermore, the heat produced by servers can be retrieved and re-used to power urban heating networks and water heaters. An example of this is in Val d’Europe, one of the main business centres in the east of “Ile de France” (Paris metropolitan region), where the Natixis datacenter heats a swimming pool and a business incubator.

Artificial intelligence against waste

The “hyper availability” of datacenters – which operate at full capacity, even during off-peak hours – and the waste of resources also pose a problem, highlights the CNRS.  Artificial intelligence is used to optimise data centre operations. In 2016, DeepMind announced having reduced the quantity of energy used to cool down a Google data centre by 40% thanks to machine learning.

Using data collected by thousands of sensors and taking into account the estimated average PUE (energy efficiency indicator), DeepMind has led to deep neural networks predicting future air temperature and pressure inside the site. The objective being to create a system capable of adapting to conditions so as not to exceed the energy needs linked to operating constraints.

Project Decima can also be cited, led by MIT researchers, entailing a new deep reinforcement learning model, that automatically learns how to optimise the distribution of data processing operations of thousands of servers in order to reduce the resources used.

The Circular Economy of Hardware

Electronic devices produce effects on the environment throughout their life cycle, and many during their manufacture. As a result, several telecom operators and manufacturers are seeking to minimise these effects by implementing circular economy principles, from eco-design to the re-use of electronic waste, while increasing the lifespan of equipment.

Produced by a Dutch company, the Fairphone is a smart phone presented as sustainable and fair. Efforts are focussed on the responsible procurement of minerals and metals, the respect of workers’ well-being, the repairability and the possibility of modular upgrades, in addition to the collection of telephones no longer used.

In October 2019, Orange launched its new eco box. Recycled plastic casing, compact design, reduced electronic components, designed to enable passive ventilation… The Livebox 5 was designed to minimise its environmental impact.  The result: a 29% reduction in its carbon footprint compared to the Livebox 4.

Companies are also taking action to improve the recycling of equipment sold, by increasing collection rates and creating partnership channels with specialised organisations.

In the Land of the Rising Sun, NTT DoCoMo has put a network in place for recycling old phones handed-in to their shops, regardless of the original provider. In 2018, it collected close to 5 million phones this way, increasing the number of devices collected to over 111 million since the launch of the initiative in 2011.

The Japanese provider also participated in the program to re-use the gold, silver and bronze contained in used mobile devices for the production of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic medals, illustrating the potential of a circular economy.

In France, we can cite the partnership between Orange and Les Ateliers du Bocage, a work integration social entreprise member of the ”Emmaüs” movement, for the re-use of used mobiles collected in France and in Africa, creating local jobs in the process.

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