5G and the Canadian Data Centre Rush

Between the power needs of 5G itself and the power needed to store vast amounts of new data, will Canadian ratepayers and municipalities be left holding the bag?

by Joyce Nelson

Cell phone tower

It looks like Canadian provinces and municipalities are going to be facing a double whammy of vastly increased electricity use because of 5G — first because of the power needs of 5G itself, and then because of the power needed to store the new data.

Important information about 5G has come out of the Middle East – information that should be a cautionary tale for our cities rushing to embrace the latest “smart” cellular network and the Internet of Things.

Two scientists at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, Professors Ahmad El Hajj and Tarek Naous, studied “5G densification” – the placement of many more antennas in urban areas to facilitate 5G deployment.

Using the public online database, they selected a neighbourhood in Austin, Texas currently covered by 3G and 4G, and plotted the existing 29 cellphone towers in 36 city blocks. Then they replaced those 4G towers with 5G and added the extra 5G mobile base antennas that would be necessary to complete the coverage.

They found that the 5G network in that 36-block area would lead to a 6-fold increase in ambient radiation (an important finding in its own right). Their September 2020 paper was read by Paul Ben Ishai, a physicist at Ariel University in Israel, who decided to calculate the amount of electricity needed by 5G in that same 36-block neighbourhood.

Massive power consumption

Ishai writes a blog for The Times of Israel, and on April 3, 2021, he wrote: “We had 29 4G sites for complete coverage. That meant a power consumption of 29 x 6 [kilowatts, kW] = 174 kW. That is a massive amount. But we need 100 sites for 5G and each station is 18 kW, not 6 kW. That means our new 5G network [in the 36-block area] is going to need 1,800 kW, or an increase of 1000%”

By contrast, proponents of 5G claim that its antennas will cut electricity use by half. An October 2020 report from Accenture and the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association states: “It has been shown that for a general 5G cell site, energy used in data transmission will be 8-15% of what it currently is for a similar 4G cell site and millimeter wave technology can further reduce energy consumption to … half the current levels.”

Their report points to new 5G base station technology that includes “sleep mode” when there is no data traffic, and “spatial multiplexing” wherein multiple antennas carry multiple data streams simultaneously, reducing energy consumption.

But two industry research companies dispute that view. A report from MTN Consulting estimates that a 5G base station will consume almost double, and possibly triple, the amount of power used by its 4G equivalent, while ABI Research predicts that whereas a 4G site uses 6 kW, a 5G site “will need 14 kW on average and 19 kW at peak load.”

It’s not clear why anyone would need a “smart yoga mat,” but that’s one device whose data will need to be stored indefinitely, along with every cat video, tweet, email, and text message sent by the iPhone-addicted public.

“So, who is planning for this massive jump in power consumption?” asked Israeli Professor Ishai in his blog. “No one. Not in Austin, Texas and not in Jerusalem, Israel.”

While municipalities may not be planning for a huge increase in power consumption because of 5G, it’s likely that the burgeoning data-centre industry is – as evidenced by their rapid expansion and rush to lock in low prices for their long-term electricity needs.

Indeed, an industry insider (who wishes to remain anonymous) told me that it’s impossible to be precise about 5G base station power usage, but “I would be much more worried about the vast amounts of power used by Internet data centres.”

Data centres

The Feb-March 2021 issue of Watershed Sentinel printed an article by Sean RM Willett, which warned that a legitimate concern about 5G is the expansion of the “data centre industrial complex,” which uses huge amounts of electricity to store everything sent into the internet. 5G will massively increase the amount of new data needing storage, including from thousands of new satellites and the many “smart” devices being sold to the public.

It’s not clear why anyone would need a “smart yoga mat,” but that’s one of the devices whose data will need to be stored indefinitely in what’s called “the cloud,” along with every cat video, tweet, email, and text message sent by the iPhone-addicted public.

In addition, the pandemic has increased the amount of data stored because of remote work, remote learning, increased Internet use, and (especially) video streaming via sites like Netflix.

Data centres (also called “server farms”) are vast warehouses (bigger than a football field) where more than 100,000 computers are stacked row after row and operate 24/7 to process and store thousands of data gigabytes. These “energy hogs” also need a cooling component to function – another energy draw.

Currently, a new data centre usually uses about 30 megawatts of electricity – enough to power a small city. (One megawatt is enough to power between 350 and 1,000 homes, depending on location.)

A 2017 report by Greenpeace estimated that by 2030, data centre electricity demand will account for 13% of global electricity consumption – a number that may already be outdated.

When selecting a site for a data centre, operators look for a cheap, secure, and (if possible) “green” energy supply, along with a relatively cool climate, tax incentives, low-cost real estate, and access to fibre optics.

In recent years, Canada has become a hot market for data centres, with the number doubling every year. According to a May 25, 2021 article in The Globe and Mail, at time of publication there were 279 data centres in Canada.

The Canadian data centre rush

The largest Canadian-owned data centre provider is Montreal-based eStruxture Data Centres Inc. The company recently bought eight Canadian data centres from US-based Aptum Technologies; eStruxture now has at least 16 data centres in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto.

After the sale, Aptum Technologies still has nine data centres in Canada: six in Toronto, one in Vancouver, and two in Montreal.

The other leaders in Canada are also US-based corporations, including Dallas-based Compass Datacenters, which has two data centres in Montreal and is converting a former warehouse in Etobicoke, while looking for other sites across Canada. The company is planning these additions to each be in the range of 50 to 75 megawatts – around double the current average size.

It looks like the winners will be data centres that secure long-term contracts for cheap power while negotiating tax benefits and real estate deals from local governments hit by 17 months of pandemic expenses and desperate for income.

California-based Digital Realty has data centres in three Ontario locations: Vaughn, Markham, and Toronto. Digital Realty bought the old Toronto Star printing press building and is turning it into the largest data centre in Canada: 711,000 square feet and up to 46 megawatts of total power supply.

By far the largest global operator in Canada is California-based Equinix Inc., which has more than 220 data centres around the world. In the summer of 2020, Bell Canada sold 25 data centres to Equinix for $1.04 billion. According to National Newswatch, the deal with Bell allows Equinix (which already had three data centres in Toronto) to expand multiple sites in Toronto, Vancouver, Kamloops, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, and Millidgeville (near Saint John, N.B.).

Another global giant, Cloudflare has 200+ data centres worldwide, including at least seven in Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.

Then there are all the companies that own and operate their own data centres in Canada. The industry insider told me that includes all the banks, credit card companies, Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, Videotron, Eastlink, Apple, Samsung, and large retail chains.

According to a 2021 report by Structure Research, Amazon Web Services (the world’s largest cloud-services operator) and Google are establishing data centres in Montreal. This will radically escalate power usage in that city, which currently earns about $210 million annually in revenue from data centres.

Toronto is also reportedly soon to be a site for both data-storage giants. Amazon Web Services has long been criticized by Greenpeace for its reliance on fossil fuels, although hydropower has its own failings – including methane release, mercury pollution, massive ecological destruction, and blatant violations of Indigenous treaties.

The carbon footprint of the global “data centre industrial complex” already rivals that of the aviation industry.

Nonetheless, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Blackstone Group, and KKR & Co. Inc. have all recently announced massive investments in data-centre infrastructure – a sign of how lucrative the industry has become.

And then there’s bitcoin.

Bitcoin

In December 2018, CBC News reported that BC Hydro is putting out “the welcome mat” for bitcoin miners, whose computer-stacked warehouses use massive amounts of electricity to perpetually run mathematical calculations for crypto-mining.

BC Hydro’s business development manager Dina Matterson told a December 2018 audience of energy professionals that in the previous year, BC Hydro had received “new load” inquiries for about 10,000 megawatts, with potential new customers including LNG producers, cannabis growers, data centres, and crypto-mining.

The 2016 Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy would mean another 118 dams (of Site C size) across Canada – a plan that has received little mainstream media coverage and which no party leader openly criticizes.

BC Hydro’s full production capacity is about 11,000 megawatts; nonetheless BC Hydro told CBC at the time that it has the capacity to serve all those potential new customers.

But of that 10,000 new megawatts under discussion, Matterson said about 5,000 megawatts would potentially be used by the crypto-mining industry. As CBC noted, “That’s about 40 per cent of the power [BC Hydro] currently generates, and four times the maximum capacity of the yet-to-be-completed Site C dam,” which is expected to provide 1,100 megawatts.

So it has to be asked: Is bitcoin one of the reasons why the BC government refused to cancel Site C?

Dam nation

In 2016, the Justin Trudeau government released its Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy, boasting that Canada would reduce carbon emissions and meet its Paris Climate targets by generating 100,000 megawatts of new hydropower. According to esteemed scientist David Schindler (now deceased), that would mean another 118 dams (of Site C size) across Canada – a plan that has received little mainstream media coverage and which no political party leader now openly criticizes.

With the double-whammy of 5G’s electricity usage and data storage about to wallop provinces and cities, it looks like the winners will be data centres that secure long-term contracts for cheap power while negotiating tax benefits and real estate deals from local governments hit by 17 months of pandemic expenses and desperate for income.

To that end, inhabitants of Montreal and Toronto should be cautious about Amazon Web Services (AWS). According to Bloomberg, AWS negotiated with utilities and politicians in Virginia and Ohio “to stick other people” with its data centre electricity bills – $172 million in Virginia alone. Apparently, Jeff Bezos (now the richest man in the world) didn’t like the expense and got rate discounts that “pushed up the utility costs for everyone else.”

Just how generous our own governments will be toward all these “energy hogs” may depend on whether the public actually wants 5G and bitcoin.

We’ll find out soon enough. In June 2021, China – which had been a leader in crypto-mining – suddenly banned the industry over concerns about coal emissions and financial risks. As the Financial Post (July 13, 2021) put it, “Bitcoin miners now are bolting toward any source of inexpensive, reliable power they can find.”

The same could be said of the “data centre industrial complex,” doubling every year. As the industry insider told me, “everything is data now.”


Award-winning author Joyce Nelson’s latest book, Bypassing Dystopia, is published by Watershed Sentinel Books. She can be reached via www.joycenelson.ca

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