Huge AI growth could use a nation's worth of electricity

Research suggests that AI could consume more electricity than some small countries, prompting business debates over energy use and carbon emissions

A new study has warned that the artificial intelligence (AI) industry could consume a large amount of energy and electricity equivalent to the size of the Netherlands by 2027.

Conducted by Alex De Vries, PhD candidate at the VU Amsterdam School of Business and Economics, and published in Joule, it highlights that annual AI-related electricity consumption around the world could increase by 85.4 to 134.0 TWh before 2027. This is alongside a substantial growth in data centre electricity use, which is currently estimated at between one and two percent of the world’s total electricity usage.

With continued concerns about rising carbon footprint, could AI be the solution to mitigating climate change, or drain the grid?

The big picture: Global businesses seek solutions

AI has emerged as a growing digital trend in 2023 and Alex De Vries warns that when adopted more widely, it could have higher energy demands than some countries.

With electricity being more in demand than ever before, AI could pose another challenge to ensuring that supply meets demand.

As reported by Scientific American, a continuation of the current trends in AI capacity and adoption are set to lead to NVIDIA shipping 1.5 million AI server units per year by 2027. 

Running at full capacity, these servers would consume at least 85.4 terawatt-hours of electricity annually - more than what many small countries use in a year, according to the De Vries’ assessment.

This is an overwhelming amount of electricity. It has also been reported that the electricity needed to run AI could dramatically increase the world’s carbon emissions, depending on how its data centres source their power (if it is renewable or not).

In conjunction with his findings, De Vries calls on the industry to be “mindful about the use of AI,” saying: “Emerging technologies such as AI and previously blockchain are accompanied by a lot of hype and fear of missing out. This often leads to the creation of applications that yield little to no benefit to the end-users.

"However, with AI being an energy-intensive technology, this can also result in a significant amount of wasted resources. A big part of this waste can be mitigated by taking a step back and attempting to build solutions that provide the best fit with the needs of the end-users (and avoid forcing the use of a specific technology).”

Collaborating for greater AI solutions

Large global companies are already starting to collaborate to discover solutions for the climate. Researchers on Google’s Climate & Energy team partnered with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy earlier in 2023 to use AI to develop contrail forecast maps to test if pilots can choose routes that avoid creating contrails.

The partnership aims to bring together huge amounts of data from satellite imagery, weather and flight path data to see if Google AI can accurately predict where contrails are more likely to form.

AI could prove beneficial in mitigating some of these effects and enable humans to better adapt. It could speed up research into alternative ways to power areas like data centres in more sustainable ways, without draining the world of its resources.

This will inevitably bring up conversations around AI regulations, as larger companies seek to improve the capabilities of their businesses in the midst of widespread digital transformation. 

For those that may not be able to keep up with the demands of the AI boom, due to financial constraints or a lack of availability, it is clear that greater conversations need to be had about how AI can continue to develop with a lesser impact on electricity.

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