Electronics And Sustainability: Can Smart Engineering Save The Planet?

The impact of consumer devices, fixed and wireless networks, data centers, and manufacturing on energy consumption.


We just celebrated Earth Day 2022 with great fanfare. In discussions with my favorite Gen Z family member, I sense genuine concerns that sustainability goals seem like a tall order. Let’s review the contributions the electronics industry can make to sustainability.

First, defining sustainability seems to lead to three main pillars—environmental, social, and economic sustainability. I found the summary from a corporate perspective in “The 3 Pillars of Corporate Sustainability” very instructive. Environmental aspects seem paramount when listening to customers and ecosystem partners, and I sense regional differences in perception. A recent discussion reminded me of the widespread “Pfand” program when growing up in Germany—returning glass bottles for recycling to get cash. Over 97% of plastic and glass bottles are now recycled in Germany thanks to this system, albeit for a combination of social, economic, and environmental considerations.

So what about technology and the internet?

As to quantification, Anders S.G. Andrae authored the most cited set of estimates on the power footprint of “Information and Communication Technology (ICT).” The original “On global electricity usage of communication technology: trends to 2030” was published in 2015 in “Challenges,” with a revision in 2020 in “New perspectives on internet electricity use in 2030” in “Engineering and Applied Science Letters.” Andrae concludes that “despite evident risks, it seems though that planned power-saving measures and innovation will be able to keep the electricity consumption of ICT and the World under some kind of control.”

The reports estimate the impact of consumer devices, fixed and wireless networks, data centers and manufacturing based on historical power consumption. Andrae takes into account aspects such as the growth in data traffic.

Bottom line: The expected consumption grows from 1988TWh to 3219TWh, 1.62 times its expected 2019 base.

It is hard to tell whether historical data is a good measure, but recent articles in Wired and Science seem to think so. Both articles also clarify that we need to be careful with our assessment metrics. The returns from the improvements are pretty staggering. For a mere increase of 6% of power consumption in data centers from 2010 to 2018, we achieved 6 times better workloads, 10 times more internet traffic, and 25 times more storage. While the overall growth was essentially flat for all data centers, the burden of energy consumption has increasingly concentrated in the data centers that the hyperscalers build themselves. Their consumption grew from 5TWh to 60TWh, which explains their attention to the issue.

We should also discuss a proper metric that considers this staggering growth in capabilities as an industry. “Power Usage Efficiency” (PUE), created by “The Green Grid,” is a well-accepted measure, dividing the amount of power entering a data center by the power used to run the computer infrastructure within it. We need to add the increased capabilities as well, somehow.

However, most importantly, we need to continue relentlessly to drive innovation. The combination of advances in semiconductor technology with improved design automation has delivered outstanding results. We made critical progress in low-power IP, energy-efficient hardware/software development, and power analysis/optimization, taking into account activity data and semiconductor effects well before committing to silicon. The advances in AI/ML to optimize digital implementation even allow tradeoffs at the architecture level using high-level synthesis. In the future, Electronic Design Automation (EDA) increasingly intertwines with electromagnetic and thermal aspects as part of the technical software market, with computational software as its core DNA. A holistic view of power, energy, and thermal aspects is attainable and critical to achieving sustainability goals.

I am proud to work at a company that makes sustainability a priority, as evidenced in our report on Corporate Social Responsibility. Regarding the environmental aspects, our technology enables improvements in energy with thermal optimized low power technology. It allows our customers to develop CO2-optimized products and is critical for societal factors by enhancing battery life, security, and trust in information technology.

So bottom line – will we get there? We’d better! I choose to take the optimistic view. Engineering ingenuity has never seized to surprise me, with unexpected innovations over the last 25 years of my career. I believe we are just getting started!

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