Study on the Electricity Demand and Carbon Footprint of ICT in Germany

Projekt News January 2024

Subject and objectives of the study

The current study models the environmental impact of the production and use of ICT over a period from 2013 to 2033. The energy and resource requirements for the production of ICT used in Germany are calculated as a carbon footprint, reflecting the global supply chain. For the energy-intensive use phase, both the electrical power requirement and the carbon footprint are quantified as a function of the annually changing energy mix.

The model incorporates a complex appliance inventory model that reflects technological and market-related developments. The product spectrum covered includes ICT devices and systems in German telecommunications networks, in data centers, in private households, in offices and businesses and (in the next iteration) in public spaces and industrial applications.

Rising energy demand and carbon footprint in the use of ICT

The present calculation results show a current trend reversal in the electricity demand of ICT. After a relatively constant phase, the annual electricity demand of ICT has risen noticeably again since 2021 from around 35 TWh to over 50 TWh in 2033. Data centers are the primary contributors to this increase. The cloud-based demand for data processing, storage and transmission is increasing as digitalization progresses. Virtual worlds and artificial intelligence are keeping the increase in data volume constant. And although existing IT systems are being better utilized, cooling and power supply infrastructures are being optimized and technical progress in the field of microelectronics and photonics is continuing, the trend can no longer be compensated for as in the past and therefore the power requirements of data centers will increase significantly in the medium term.

We are seeing a similar trend in telecommunications networks. However, technology development and photonics in particular can make a much better contribution to offsetting this. In the case of telecommunication networks, the energy demand can also be reduced again and again for a short time, particularly by dismantling outdated technologies. Although many telecommunications networks are designed for peak performance and could potentially contribute to a substantial increase in electricity demand, in practice there are opportunities for improved load adaptivity, which may well compensate for the data-driven increase in the long term.

The usage-related electricity demand of ICT devices in private households has decreased over the last ten years. Technical progress to date and the legal requirements of the European Ecodesign Directive are the reasons for this positive trend. The technical development of private ICT devices and the more intensive use of the cloud are causing a change in the stock. In the medium term, electricity demand will increase again slightly in line with the modeling. Larger televisions and displays with higher resolution as well as routers and wireless communication are the causes of the potential increase in electricity demand.

IKT Studie - Folie 2
© Fraunhofer IZM

The carbon footprint of the utilization phase is directly correlated with electricity demand. The carbon footprint will increase in the coming years if the carbon intensity of electricity generation - the German energy mix - remains constant or improves only slightly. Future developments are currently difficult to predict. The effects of the substantial geopolitical changes, which have been greatly accelerated by the war in Ukraine, are only just beginning to emerge. It remains to be seen at what speed and in what form the energy transition will be realized. Against this backdrop, three scenarios with different assumptions regarding the development of the German energy mix are calculated for the forecast.

In the current version of the forecast, the respective energy mix is applied across all areas of application. In reality, however, private individuals, data center operators and telecommunications companies are increasingly purchasing electricity from renewable energy sources. The exact distribution of "green electricity users" is not known to the authors of the study. This may therefore lead to a not inconsiderable distortion of the results. In this context, it should be pointed out once again that the demand for electricity from ICT will increase again in the medium term and that although green electricity improves the carbon footprint of ICT, it only represents a limited improvement in relation to all sectors, as ICT also ties up renewable energy and does not reduce demand.

The following three assumptions on the development of the energy mix are made for the carbon footprint calculation:

  • Scenario 1: A conservative development with a gradual reduction in the electricity mix from 434 gCO2e/kWh (2022) to 380 gCO2e/kWh (2030).
  • Scenario 2: A progressive development to achieve the federal government's climate protection target with a gradual reduction in the electricity mix from 434 gCO2e/kWh (2022) to 280 gCO2e/kWh (2030)
  • Scenario 3: An ambitious development to implement the energy transition with a gradual reduction in the electricity mix from 434 gCO2e/kWh (2022) to 145 gCO2e/kWh (2030)
IKT Studie - Folie 1
© Fraunhofer IZM

The carbon footprint of ICT manufacturing

The manufacture of semiconductor-based circuits (ICs), displays and printed circuit boards is energy and resource-intensive. In particular, the demanding production of microelectronics in clean rooms generates environmental pollution. The energy mix in the extraction of raw materials and at the production site influence the carbon footprint. As the majority of ICT used in Germany is manufactured abroad, global GWP values were used for the calculation. The calculation model takes into account the hardware-based structure and technology generations of the individual ICT devices. The production of different types of ICs, the complexity and number of layers of printed circuit boards, different types of connectors and bulk materials for heat sinks or housing materials are taken into account.

Aktuell beträgt der herstellungsbedingte Carbon Footprint etwa 35% von an den Gesamtemissionen. In Abhängigkeit der Gerätekategorie kann die Herstellung 20% wie bei einem Server oder 80% wie bei einem Smartphones betragen, Die wachsende Zahl IC-basierter Speicher (DRAM und NAND) aber auch große Displays bewirken einen Zuwachs des Carbon Footprints in den kommenden Jahren. Dieser Trend könnte durch eine stärkere Nutzung erneuerbarer Energien bei den Herstellern etwas kompensiert werden. Des Weiteren wirkt sind die Produktlebensdauer auf das Berechnungsergebnis aus, da beispielsweise eine kurze Lebensdauer nicht nur zu einem anteilig hohen Carbon Footprint der Herstellung führt, sondern auf den Bestand gerechnet, schneller erneuert werden muss und so kumuliert.

*Stand 11/2023: Modellversion ICT_CF_D_Mod_23-2

Further links:

Press release: Small components with a big impact: More sustainability in ICT through microelectronic research and development | more info (de)