While anyone working in a datacenter could readily enumerate the advantages of the improvements in microprocessor technology, a new study attempts to quantify the gains and assess the resulting macroeconomic impacts.

The report, titled “Semiconductor Technologies: The Potential to Revolutionize U.S. Energy Productivity” was published American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and credits improved semiconductors as the leading factor behind energy efficiency gains made in recent decades.

“In many ways, the story of the gains in energy efficiency since the mid 1970s and the mid 1990s, in particular, is the story of the rise of the semiconductor,” says John “Skip” Laitner, director, economic and social analysis for ACEEE. “However, the powerful connection between semiconductors and energy consumption is more than just unappreciated; it is actually misunderstood by some. Despite the immediate growth in electricity demands to power the growing number of devices and technologies, semiconductors have enabled a surprisingly larger energy productivity benefit in that same period.” 

Data centers now enjoy the fruits of these advances in processors built by chipmakers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. The generation of chips built today utilizes circuits measuring just 45 nanometers (one billionth of a meter) across. As the size of the circuits shrink, chips can provide greater performance while consuming less energy. Indeed, the multi-core processors powering today’s servers in many cases consume fewer watts than the single core processors of just a few years ago, while offering greatly enhanced performance. The impact of these changes ripples out of the data center into the economy as a whole, the report says.

Extrapolating forward, additional energy efficiency gains will be seen over the next 20 years, the report predicts, enabling the U.S. economy to continue to expand while using less electricity.

“By our calculation here, the cumulative net electricity bill savings enabled by semiconductors might exceed $1.2 trillion through 2030,” the report states. “In other words, semiconductor-related technologies may support an economy in 2020 that is 35% larger than today, but one that uses 7% less electricity. And by 2030 those policies may support an economy that is over 70 percent larger but uses 11 percent less electricity than in 2008 ... By 2030, we would need to build 296 fewer power plants.”

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