At the end of December, I talked about how politics and technology will change data centers in 2016. But there’s another perspective you won’t hear much about: the big picture of energy usage.

Everyone prefers to talk about the efficiency of individual data centers, or the proportion of renewable energy they use. No one talks much about total energy used by data centers because the figures you get for that are annoying, depressing and frustrating.  

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– Thinkstock / Wavebreakmedia Ltd

Uncontrollable growth

The plain fact is that, no matter how efficiently we run them, data centers are expanding uncontrollably, and consuming increasing amounts of power. In fact, the efficiency improvements are contributing to the rapid growth.

In 2011, Google reported that it used 260MW of electric power. At the end of 2015 it has just announced a colossal bulk purchase of 781MW of renewable power for its data centers. That takes its total renewable usage contracts to 2GW of power.

Now renewable power is only part of the mix of input to Google’s data centers, and the company says renewables make up around 37 percent of its current usage. Right now, before those agreements come in, then, Google must have about 1.2GW of renewable purchase agreements. If that’s 37 percent of the total, that total power use must be around 3.2GW.

In other words, Google’s total power usage seems to have gone up 12-fold in the last four years. That is not far off doubling each year.

william stanley jevons
William Stanley Jevons – Wikipedia

Fossils growing

This means that even though Google has increased its renewable usage, and plans to phase out fossils, it’s currently using more than ever. The fossil part of its power is 2GW, or about eight times the total power in 2011. Google’s efforts to use more renewables have so far not reduced its fossil energy use.

Facebook, Amazon and Apple are definitely growing the same way, and Microsoft and IBM certainly hope they are. These cloud providers are only a small part of the overall data center world (the colos and in-house sites outweigh them) but most sectors are growing.

So it’s a fair bet that the total power used by the world’s data centers is growing, and given that most data center providers are adopting renewables slower than Google, I think we can be pretty sure that the total amout of fossil fuels consumed by data centers is growing.

Now, there’s a very real way in which data center providers can’t be held responsible for this. Data centers are just meeting a demand.

But that demand seems to be endless. Most of the rampant growth is caused by growth in consumer services like Facebook, Youtube, Netflix and messaging. As long as these things are “free” or very cheap, people will go on consuming more of them indefinitely.

That’s the irony. By offering services really efficiently, the data center industry is fuelling massive growth. It is the Jevons Paradox once again, the 19th century conundrum proposed by economist William Stanley Jevons, that says if you make a process more efficient, you increase rather than reduce consumption.

Out of our control?

Individually, there is very little we can do about this. It’s just as hard to stop cheap junk displacing real food in our diet, or to stop fuel consumption going up when the price of oil falls, making motoring cheaper. 

Whatever world leaders promise, consumption is going to increase. The only things that seem to curb actual consumption are laws and taxes restricting it. For instance, city center car pollution goes up until usage is restricted by congestion charging zones (eg in London) or more extreme measures such as New Delhi’s laws where motorists can only drive on alternate days.

Is there a way to do anything like that with data center usage? The difficulty is, this an international business, and there is no world authority ready or able to limit power use by the Internet. And if 2015 taught us anything, it is that no one anywhere in the world is likely to increase taxes on data centers.

Putting the problem in perspective, data centers still have a smaller role in global warming than other industries, and may even displace some small parts of those other industries. That may be some consolation, but let’s keep the big picture in mind this year.

A version of this story appeared on Green Data Center News.