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Global electricity usage of ICT network operators - an extensive data set

The increase in ICT data traffic by far outnumbers the increase in electricity consumption from network usage. The study shows that ICT network operators use about 1% of global electricity (242 TWh in 2015).

Based on unique primary data set

The electricity consumption of Information and Communication (ICT) networks has been estimated in many previous studies. For this study, ten ICT network operators active in thirty countries, representing about 10% of all global subscriptions, shared their data, forming a unique network data set allowing for more precise modelling. Moreover, reported data from more operators was included in order to increase the geographical coverage. The total data set covered about 15% of all global fixed subscriptions and 40% of the almost five billion mobile subscriptions worldwide. This extensive data was then extrapolated to all subscribers.

Global electricity usage of ICT network operators - an extensive data set

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ICT operations ~1% of global electricity usage

The total electricity consumption of ICT network operations was 242 TWh in 2015, which corresponded to about 1% of the total global electricity supply. This was an increase of only 0.07 percentage units since 2010, despite the increasing number of subscriptions globally and exponential data growth. The ICT network includes both fixed and mobile network operations as well as operator activities, such as offices, in-house data centers and travel.

The results show a trend of approximately linear increase in annual electricity consumption for ICT networks as defined in this study. The years between 2010 and 2015 saw a huge shift in habits and technologies, and smartphone usage took off. However, fixed network and broadband electricity consumption remained almost unchanged over the period, and the increase in electricity can be attributed to the expansion in mobile network usage.

ICT network operators mainly purchase the energy they use, but they also produce their own electricity at remote sites. About one million mobile base station sites had their own on-site electricity generation capacity in 2015. In total, they generated about 27 TWh (already included in the total figure).

Embodied life cycle emissions are not included in the presented results, as the focus is on ICT network operators. The ICT industry sector also includes all data centers, enterprise networks and end-user equipment worldwide.

Read more about global ICT energy consumption and carbon footprint in the Research Brief “Exponential data growth – constant ICT footprints”.

Corresponding carbon emissions about 0.34%

In 2015 the total carbon emissions relating to fixed and mobile ICT network operations, excluding other life cycle stages but including on-site electricity generation, were about 169 Mt carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-eq), which is about 0.34% of overall global emissions. Emissions relating to fixed networks decreased somewhat, probably due to an increased share of renewable electricity and organizational improvements. Similar improve­ments and a switch to renewable electricity were also made for the mobile networks, but due to the greater network growth there was an increase in absolute emissions.

ICT network operators are important purchasers of renewable energy. Major investments have also been made for the off- and partly on-grid sites when launching diesel-hybrid solutions or using local renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power. Consequently, the on-site electricity generation part of the emissions has not increased in line with a doubling of the number of these sites between 2010 and 2015.

Overall decreasing emissions per subscription

Emissions per data or subscription show an overall decreasing trend between 2010 and 2015. Network operational carbon emissions per subscription have dropped in total from 21.5 to 19 kg CO2-eq per subscription. This should be compared to the global average total carbon footprint of about 7000 kg CO2-eq per person.

In particular, the numbers for fixed network operations have decreased significantly in terms of both electricity consumption and the CO2-eq emissions. This is mainly due to the decommissioning and replacement of old equipment. For mobile networks, electricity consumption per subscription has increased slightly, while the corresponding carbon emissions have stayed at the same level. The slight increase in electricity consumption per subscriber is due to new generations of networks that are built on top of the existing ones.

According to a deeper analysis for five operators, on average data traffic increased by about 300%, while the corresponding increase in electricity consumption was only about 5%.

Historical development of ICT footprints

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Reference to full paper:

Malmodin, J. & Lundén, D. The electricity consumption and operational carbon emissions of ICT network operators 2010-2015. Report from the KTH Centre for Sustainable Communications Stockholm, Sweden 2018. ISBN: 978-91-7729-679-9 TRITA-EECS-2018:1