How our streaming habits are hurting the environment

How our streaming habits are hurting the environment

Watching just one hour of Netflix a week for a year consumes, by some estimates, more electricity annually than two kitchen refrigerators.


Now consider that nearly five billion people are projected to be online by 2022, using their mobile devices and computers to send email messages, surf the Web, play games, post photos on social media sites — and also watch an unbelievable amount of video.

More than 80 per cent of all data flowing through the Internet comes from the videos we devour on YouTube or binge on streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video, according to networking giant Cisco.

Metaphorically speaking, that’s a lot of refrigerators that need to be powered.

Humans aren’t the only consumers and creators of internet traffic. As homes, vehicles, power plants, industries and entire cities get smarter we’re seeing exponential growth in “things” connected to the cloud and sharing data — from thermostats and streetlights to wind turbines and factory equipment. We’re talking tens of billions of devices and the infrastructure required to store, manage and transmit trillions of gigabytes of data.

So how much electricity is needed to power this cloud? Researchers from Huawei Technologies estimate that the world’s data centres alone will consume as much power as all of Canada by 2022. And if these data centres are based in a country like China or India, you can bet they’re being powered by electricity generated from coal.



That’s horrible news for the climate. In fact, emissions from data centres are already on par with that of the global airline industry.

Fortunately, there’s a strong stable of Canadian companies working hard to shrink the Internet’s carbon footprint by helping data centres handle more traffic using less energy:

  • Ranovus, based in Ottawa, has developed a quantum-dot laser product that transmits data within and between data centres using a sliver of the energy required today. Each laser module from Ranovus has the potential to replace up to 100 conventional lasers in a data-centre setting, at one-quarter the cost and using one-fifth the power. “It’s going to change the optical networking world,” says CEO Hamid
  • The computing and networking equipment in data centres emit a tremendous amount of heat, which is why up to 40 per cent of electricity consumed by data centres is used for cooling. But instead of using electricity to cool hot equipment, why not use hot equipment to produce electricity? Smarter Alloys, based in Waterloo, has developed a super-efficient heat engine that uses waste heat from data centres to produce low-cost, emission-free power. It leverages the unique behaviour of shape-memory alloys, which can be tuned to perform particular functions when exposed to specific temperatures.
  • Toronto-based Enersion is also putting the waste heat in data centres to good use, but instead of converting it into electricity, it turns the heat directly into cool air. This is done using a process called adsorption cooling, which eliminates the use of climate-damaging synthetic refrigerants, relying instead on just water. At peak efficiency, Enersion’s chillers use 70 per cent less electricity that traditional air conditioning by relying on waste heat as its main source of energy.
  • Rockport Networks, based in Ottawa, has developed what is calls “switchless networking,” meaning the computer servers in data centres communicate directly with each other instead of through physical switches that typically direct data flow. Eliminating switches reduces the space, electricity and cooling required for data centre equipment, and lowers maintenance costs. The company says it has the potential to reduce power consumption in data centres up to 10-fold compared to existing technology.
  • Many data centres still use traditional computer room air conditioning systems for cooling equipment, and those system have historically used hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants, a powerful class of greenhouse gas that is being phased out of use. Carnot Refrigeration, based in Montreal, uses carbon dioxide instead. CO2 is less harmful to the climate (by up to 4,000 times), it costs much less, and it’s more efficient as a refrigerant — meaning Carnot’s systems operating using less electricity.