ICT and energy efficiency: the two sides of the equation

Ilsa Godlovitch
Director Brussels

The use of ICT shows considerable promise as a means to support energy efficiency in other sectors, including three sectors which are responsible for a substantial portion of Greenhouse Gas emissions worldwide, transport, buildings and energy. On the other hand, ICT can also be a source of emissions. We consider both sides of the equation in this brief article.

In a study conducted by WIK-Consult for Stokab in 2020,[i] the municipal network of the City of Stockholm, we found that fibre infrastructure was being used in Stockholm in a range of innovative ways to reduce pollution and limit green-house-gas emissions.

For example, by introducing Smart Waste Handling, which involves using sensors to identify different types of waste and facilitate their separation, underground transportation and recycling, the City was able to reduce traffic from waste vehicles by 90% with an accompanying reduction in CO2 emissions, noise and pollution. Buses also experienced 25% faster driving times in a trial of dynamic traffic light controls, which gave public transport priority over other more potentially more polluting forms of private transportation. ICT (including video capture and analysis of licence plates) has also played a critical role in the introduction of “congestion charging” and “diesel ban” schemes which have been established in a number of cities, and is central to the introduction of “transport as a service” as well as “connected automotive mobility” which is expected to increase the efficiency of freight transport.

Fibre-connected sensors can also be used to optimise energy use in buildings, by controlling the use of heating, lighting and air conditioning to precisely reflect ambient conditions. Sisab, which is responsible for maintaining Stockholm’s schools, was able to save 35% of energy, saving 18,500 tons of CO2 and 4 million Euros per year between 2012 and 2019, through using “smart building” solutions, supported by fibre. Buildings are responsible for around 40% of all energy consumption in the EU as well as 36% of CO2 emissions,[ii] so the opportunities for energy (as well as cost) saving could be significant.

Digitalisation also offers significant promise in increasing the efficiency of energy generation and distribution. For example, as discussed in a 2019 study by WIK for the Danish Energy Agency,[iii] ICT can be used by grid operators to monitor processes in the grid and boost the efficiency of energy transmission. This is crucial in a system with a high feed-in from intermittent energy sources such as wind and photovoltaic generation and will become increasingly important as demand for electricity increases as a result of the growing use of electric vehicles and heat pumps. Meanwhile, on the demand side, smart meters offer the potential for time or load dependent tariffs and provide consumers with real-time information on their energy consumption, supporting consumers in making energy-efficient choices.

Recognising these contributions, the European Commission highlighted in the 2019 European Green Deal, that the Information and communication technologies (ICT) sector is a key enabler to achieve Europe’s sustainability goals in many different sectors. However, the EC also emphasizes that the digital sector itself should be sustainable at its heart,[iv] and provides an objective that digital infrastructures should achieve climate neutrality.

Looking at the ICT sector itself, the largest proportion of Greenhouse Gas emissions stems from end-user devices. Trends are towards devices and delivery methods which are more energy intensive. For example, higher energy use (and thereby emissions) is associated with larger screens, while streaming is more energy intensive than the content delivery mechanism, which it is increasingly replacing – traditional broadcasting. However, at the same time, with incentives from legislative and soft law measures including the Ecodesign Directive and voluntary Codes of conduct covering broadband equipment and data centres, the ICT sector is taking steps to improve the energy efficiency of devices and data centres. Electronic communications operators have also been active in improving energy efficiency, with many adopting “net zero” targets between 2030-2040.

The balance between increased demand for energy within the ICT sector and steps towards energy efficiency will ultimately determine whether the ICT sector can maintain its energy consumption within the current footprint. In any event, it stands to play a significant role in supporting the energy as well as digital transformation in a range of other sectors.

[i] Godlovitch et al (2020) Neutral Fibre and the European Green Deal.
[ii] See EC (2019). Energy performance of buildings.
[iii] Godlovitch et al (2019) Analysis of the Danish Telecommunication Market in 2030.
[iv] 2019 European Green Deal.

E-mail: i.godlovitch@wik.org

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