Data usage rises steeply in Finland but electricity costs hold steady

A new study suggests that electricity costs did not rise because streaming services use data centres in other countries.

Finnish residents have been enthusiastic consumers of streaming content. Image: Jani Aarnio / Yle

In recent years data usage by consumers and firms in Finland -- especially mobile data -- has risen sharply. But while energy consumption related to the trend has also multiplied, electricity bills have not followed suit.

According to a study by Aalto University and partially-business funded think tank Etla, mobile data usage in Finland increased by a factor of 25 times between 2011 and 2017. At the same time, electricity consumption in the IT sector grew nearly 14 percent during the same period. The study was funded by the Academy of Finland and the Finnish Innovation Fund (Sitra).

The analysis suggested that the difference between data usage and energy consumption was because energy use often took place elsewhere. It explained that for example, streaming services used in Finland may be relayed via data centres located in other parts of the world. As a result, energy consumption could be diverted to countries where electricity production creates more emissions than in Finland.

"In the big picture, the significant growth in data usage also means growth in energy consumption. For example looking at the existing data it is however very difficult to assess the energy consumption of Finnish consumers’ data use," Etla lead researcher Timo Seppälä said in a statement.

Since 2017 however, the growth in data usage has slowed down. Between 2018 and 2019 it grew 20 percent annually, as fast as the use of fixed networks. The study suggested that energy and electricity consumption in the IT sector will continue to grow unless the field becomes more energy-efficient. However it noted that information on consumption and environmental effects are hard to come by.

"Society is digitalising at an enormous speed and we have to be able to guide development in the right direction. To do this we need information about where the sector is going in terms of electricity and energy consumption," Sitra circular economy specialist Lotta Toivonen said in the release.

The aim of the study was to examine energy and electricity consumption in the IT sector and to assess energy efficiency in the industry.