Exclusive. Data centre sector responds to BBC’s Dirty Streaming: The Internet’s Big Secret documentary

BBC's Dirty Streaming documentary commentary The programme was aired on BBC iPlayer on 5th March 2020

Following the release of the BBC documentary, Dirty Streaming: The Internet’s Big Secret, there has been a call for the discrepancies in the 25-minute programme to be addressed.

The issue? The influx of online data usage from Nexflix watching, Gaming and Instagramming is driving the demand for more data centres, which is contributing to climate change.

The discrepancies? The documentary claims that data centre usage is ‘exploding’, refers to the power used as ‘dirty’ and makes claims alluding to data centres being the internet’s ‘big secret’.

Data Economy reached out to Film and TV writer Beth Webb who created the documentary on BBC iPlayer, to which she is yet to respond.

Emma Fryer, Associate Director, Data Centres, techUK spoke with Data Economy extensively about the claims made in the documentary.

“The programme made the important point that we need to become more responsible digital citizens,” said Fryer.

“Not everyone understands that our internet society is enabled by physical infrastructure that has an impact beyond our own devices and the freemium and advertorial business models that tend to predominate send no signal to the consumer of the carbon and energy impact of their online activity. 

“We have stated that it is important that people understand how the internet works and that we do have an impact beyond charging our phones and laptops.

“However, a number of claims made by the programme were misleading or simply incorrect, for instance, the assertion that data centres depend on fossil fuels.  In fact, the ICT sector is world-leading in its adoption of renewables.

“Greenpeace has been monitoring this closely in its clickclean campaign. In the UK 76.5% of the electricity purchased by our commercial data centre operators is 100% certified renewable, and a further 10% is purchased according to customer requirement, which increasingly means renewable, taking that total up.”

Fryer added that Google is the world’s largest purchaser of renewable power, meeting its requirements through power purchase agreements; direct contracts with renewable generators that create additional utility-scale renewable capacity.  

“Operators are increasingly adopting this form of power procurement.  This is spelt out in more detail in our sector energy routemap,” she added.

“Another claim I found troubling is that data centre energy is spiralling out of control, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, most recently from Lawrence Berkeley Labs in the February edition of Science.

“At a UK-level, our energy data from the climate change agreement shows an incremental increase in energy consumption from 2.57 TWh to 2.89TWh between 2016 and 2018. 

“Infrastructure efficiency has improved by 16% since 2014. At the same time improvements in hardware, in software and in utilisation have massively increased productivity. The energy needed to process a given amount of data has reduced by around seven  orders of magnitude over the last three decades.”

If the world is using more and more data, then it must be using more and more energy, right? Not so, according to researchers at Northwestern University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Koomey Analytics.

They developed a model of global data centre energy use. With this model, the researchers found that, although demand for data has increased rapidly, massive efficiency gains by data centres have kept energy use roughly flat over the past decade.


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“The suggestion that data centres are secretive about power use is also inaccurate.  Consolidating IT activity into purpose-built facilities improves both transparency and efficiency,” added Fryer.

“The UK commercial sector monitors and reports its energy consumption at the sector level.  Energy consumption is measured, audited and publicly reported at regular intervals in our CCA reports.

“There were other things that I did not agree with: the long-discredited comparison with the airline industry, the suggestion that there are hundreds of thousands of facilities like the ones pictured, and the lack of reference to industry data or evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies. 

“It is disappointing that an attempt to understand a sector we all rely on so heavily presented it in a misleading way.”

This is not the first time data/streaming has been called ‘dirty’ with the likes of Amazon’s AWS and Dominion Energy in the firing line.

Last year, Greenpeace released a report that claimed AWS had failed to stick to the 100% renewable energy commitment it made in 2014, and saved some of the wrath for Virginia based energy supplier Dominion Energy too.

Fredrik Jansson, Strategy Director at DigiPlex told Data Economy that: “It’s interesting to see the BBC programme highlighting the importance of consumer choice in mitigating the rising energy demands of the digital economy.

“This is something that we would also echo. Our own research has shown that consumers increasingly want information so that they can make more environmentally conscious choices about the digital services they consume.

“A recent Kantar poll showed that 66% of people in the Nordic region supported eco-labelling of digital services and that 26% would limit their internet use in order to be more eco-friendly.

“This presents both opportunity and risk to the brands providing these services. If they can credibly demonstrate their eco-credentials and prove their data resides in efficient data centres powered by 100% renewable energy, then they can meet this growing consumer demand. If they cannot, they may find customers migrating to those companies that can.”

In 2018, the American Association for the Advancement of Science estimated that global data centre energy use rose to 205 TWh, or around 1% of global electricity consumption.

This represents a 6% increase compared with 2010, whereas global data centre compute instances increased by 550% over the same time period.

“The increasing demand for internet usage, including streaming services is one of the drivers of data centre growth,” said Neil Cresswell, CEO – VIRTUS Data Centres to Data Economy when discussing the BBC documentary.

“Data centres are large consumers of power, however not all data centres increase pollution as a result. The economies of scale of modern cloud computing and large modern data centres provide a highly efficient and sustainable method of powering today’s business computing.

“All VIRTUS Data Centres have been using green energy contracts (where 100% of the energy is generated from fully renewable, carbon-free sources such as wind, solar and tidal) since 2013, supporting the UK’s target of Net Zero Emissions by 2050. 

“Despite a huge increase in the compute loads of data centres between 2010 and 2018, actual energy usage rose only marginally. In fact, the industry’s power demands rose just 6% in the time it took for the equivalent compute capacity to jump 550%, according to those studies.”

Data Economy reached out to AWS and Dominion Energy for comment as they were addressed in the documentary – both provided no comment.

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