We don't need to burn down the planet for AI — Cisco and Equinix

  • AI is increasing data center energy consumption, which already accounts for 1-2% of global energy use
  • Cisco and Equinix are implementing energy-efficient technologies
  • Ironically, the discussion of green energy happened in Las Vegas, which seems to be a horribly climate-unfriendly city (but maybe isn’t really)

CISCO LIVE, LAS VEGAS — Data centers use staggering amounts of energy, and AI is accelerating energy demand. Thus, the challenge: delivering AI benefits without precipitating a climate change disaster.

Data centers suck down some 1-2% of global energy consumption today, said Mary de Wysocki, Cisco SVP and chief sustainability officer, speaking at a panel for press and analysts at the Cisco Live conference Monday.

In 2022, data centers consumed 460 terawatts hours (TWh) — roughly the energy demand of France. Energy use is projected to double by 2026, to 1,000 TWh, de Wysocki said, citing a forecast from the International Energy Agency.

That expansion in energy usage is unsustainable. So the problem is how to realize the benefits of new technology while conserving energy.

“How can we get the benefit of AI without worsening climate change?” de Wysocki said. “Because in my opinion, climate change is the crisis of our lifetime. 2023 was the warmest year in history.” Our generation is the first to experience climate change, and the actions we take will impact generations to come, she added.

Data center energy usage has been growing for decades, said Tiffany Thoms Osias, VP global colocation services at Equinix, who was also on the panel.

Likewise, Equinix has been working for a long time on power conservation. Building a data center takes years, and in that time Equinix has been working to conserve power by building its data centers with higher density, automation, new cooling systems and working with local energy companies to secure power.

Density for efficiency

Meanwhile, Cisco is building more dense, energy-efficient architectures to improve energy performance, said Denise Lee, VP in the Cisco engineering sustainability office. Visibility software like Cisco’s ThousandEyes helps operators manage energy usage. Operators can use AI to more effectively automate energy spending and energy from renewable sources.

Cisco has developed five energy metrics it’s standardized across its entire portfolio, in 11 different controllers, to measure energy usage and feed it into telemetry, which data is then fed into the Snowflake AI data cloud for governance and reporting purposes, Lee said. The metrics can also measure renewable and other energy sources and be used to evaluate where to build new data centers or retrofit existing properties.

Emerging microgrid technologies allow data centers to generate their own energy and, in some cases, produce more power than they consume, Lee said.

Lee said liquid cooling is part of the sustainability formula, particularly with regard to the more energy-hungry processors on the roadmap from vendors including AMD, NVIDIA and Intel. Average energy consumption today is about 10 kilowatts per rack, but it is projected to top 200 kilowatts in the future. Air cooling just doesn’t keep up.

Equinix is pioneering liquid cooling, using heat from its data centers to warm an Olympic swimming pool in Paris, Osias said.

“We can balance them both — get the benefit of AI at the same time as we’re thinking about the impact on climate,” de Wysocki said.

Partnerships and collective action will be essential to achieving both goals together. Companies also need to embed sustainability in their business processes. And companies need to prioritize and measure environmental impact the same way they prioritize and measure financial performance.

Data center operators need to build in locations where green energy is available, and nations need to invest in energy transmission, distribution and storage, Osias said.

Oh, the irony

Ironically, Cisco’s talk about energy efficiency took place in a seemingly climate-unfriendly venue: a conference room in the Four Seasons, part of the Mandalay Bay hotel complex in Las Vegas.

Temperatures outside soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but the air inside was so highly conditioned and cool that I saw a couple of people wearing puffer vests indoors against the cold. The temperature this week is forecast to hit 108 Fahrenheit by Friday.

Even as far back as 2019, Las Vegas was named the fastest-warming city in the U.S., according to a report in the Guardian headlined, “The hellish future of Las Vegas in the climate crisis: 'A place where we never go outside'.”

Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, generated more greenhouse gas in 2022 than the much larger Los Angeles.

Fierce Network is not claiming moral superiority over Cisco and pointing any fingers. Far from it. Two of us flew in from California and New York on fuel-guzzling and greenhouse-gas-vomiting commercial planes. As I write this now I’m sitting in an chilly room in the sweltering desert, wearing a long-sleeve shirt and jacket and drinking hot coffee, while outside it’s 98 degrees. And Questex, the company that employs me and publishes Fierce Network, is in the conference business itself.

But, maybe Sin City isn't the climate sinner it appears to be.

Las Vegas ranks in the middle of 75 US cities on the City Efficiency Scorecard from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Las Vegas is 38 — not great, but not awful either. Cisco’s headquarters city, San Jose, ranks 9.

I asked Cisco about the — apparent — contradiction of espousing green policy while hosting a big conference where 22,000 people from around the world fly to an air-conditioned desert city. De Wysocki replied in an email.

She said Cisco supports hybrid work, reducing the amount of travel employees need to do, but said people sometimes need to come together to collaborate.

“Large events also benefit local economies by supporting businesses in the cities in which we convene,” de Wysocki said.

"In hosting large events like Cisco Live we seek to balance the benefits of convening in person with the responsibility of protecting the environment," she added. "We approach events with an end-to-end circular mindset. Our priority is to reduce our carbon footprint through renting, reusing, and recycling.

"We have tracked our events´ carbon footprint for many years, which has helped us build one of the longer running bodies of data in the events industry for the measurement of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)," de Wysocki said. 

"We have been able to reduce several key event greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sources by choosing venue activities and hotel accommodation providers that are working to source increasing amounts of renewable energy. As an example, the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas benefits from MGM Resorts’ 100MW Mega Solar Panel just north of the Las Vegas Strip, which can produce 90% of the daytime power needs of MGM Resorts’ entire Las Vegas portfolio and has contributed to the decarbonization of Mandalay Bay."

Cisco Live also includes a Sustainability Zone at the event, "showcasing 12 demos and virtual reality experiences focusing on data center, energy management, smart building and industry solutions," de Wysocki said. 

We'll have more coverage from live Las Vegas this week—if I can get my fingers warmed-up to type in this maxed-out air conditioning.