Artificial intelligence, higher-speed 5G cellular networks, and streaming services like Netflix  may be making our lives easier, but there’s a cost: skyrocketing demand for energy that will have a huge impact on the environment.

As the world depends more on smart devices that use data, tech companies are building immense facilities housing stacks and stacks of servers handling thousands of gigabytes of digital traffic. These data centers may consume up to 651 terawatt-hours of electricity in the next year, almost as much as the entire energy sector of Canada can produce, Anders Andrae, a researcher at Huawei Technologies Sweden, told CBC News. 

Andrae predicted data centers may more than double their power demands over the next decade, and that hunger for energy may lead to an “unsustainable” situation by 2040.

The estimate adds to mounting concerns that the data centers are burning up so much energy — as much as 2% of total global power demand — that they are exacerbating the effects of global warming by boosting carbon emissions. Microsoft and Amazon are among numerous tech companies that are trying to curb the criticisms by investing heavily in renewable energy.

Amazon, for instance, last summer unveiled plans for a wind farm in Ireland and a solar project in the U.S. as part of its  goal of using 100% renewable power for Amazon Web Services’ data centers. The company as a whole reached 50% renewable-energy usage in 2018.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has said its goal is for the company’s data centers to use 70% renewable energy by 2023 on the way to 100% in the future.

A number of startups would love to help.

For instance, Boston-based startup Carbon Relay, which took in $5 million last year in an investing round backed by Foxconn Technology Group, is focused on using artificial intelligence to reduce energy use in data centers by controlling humidity and electricity consumption, among other areas.

In June, LevelTen Energy, a Seattle-based startup that enables companies to buy clean energy online, raised $20.5 million for expansion in the U.S. and Europe. Companies have procured more than $1 billion of renewable energy through the LevelTen marketplace. 

  • Sweden-based EcoDataCenter opened what it called the “first carbon-positive facility in the world.” The company is too small to compete with market leaders like Microsoft, EcoDataCenter CEO Lars Schedin told Karma, but the giants’ focus on renewable energy raises awareness and helps everyone.