How the Electronics Industry Can Shape a Sustainable World

Godwin Maben, Piyush Sancheti

Dec 06, 2022 / 6 min read

We’re already experiencing the effects of our world’s changing climate—devastating wildfires, prolonged droughts, torrential flooding, just to name a few examples. Global energy consumption is increasing, raising carbon dioxide levels and triggering extreme weather conditions. Two key forces driving these trends are the shift to hyperscale datacenters and the explosion of internet traffic.

In short, our world is becoming more digitized, connected, and intelligent. But our planet—and all who call this beautiful place home—is paying the price. What can be done to create a more sustainable, energy-efficient world?

Innovation has led us where we are today, and innovation can lead us toward a more viable path. From the way that we produce and deliver energy to how our electronic systems are designed, there are measures that our industry can take now to ensure that all we’ve built will endure. Read on to learn about four key areas in electronics where the integration of more sustainable practices can yield brighter outcomes for the next generation.

Wind turbines against blue sky

How Bad Is It Out There?

To provide a sense of where we are—and where we are potentially headed—let’s take a closer look at our current landscape. Global carbon dioxide levels are skyrocketing, from 303.8 parts per million (PPM) in 1922 to over 400 PPM now, according to a project of the non-profit 2 Degrees Institute, which tracks atmospheric CO2 levels dating back 800,000 years. Not coincidentally, energy consumption has seen a 7x increase since 1952, with most of it generated via fossil fuels, according to an annual report of world energy by Seeking Alpha.

Part of what’s fueling this substantial growth in global energy usage is the shift to hyperscale data centers—massive undertakings featuring at least 5,000 servers managing petabytes of data in around 10,000 square feet of space. Their efficiency lies in their ability to swiftly process voluminous amounts of data—the data that fuels our demands for streaming video, lightning-fast financial transactions, big data analytics, and AI (both inferencing and learning). To accomplish this, however, hyperscale data centers consume enormous amounts of power. Excluding crypto, datacenter energy use was in the 220-to-330 Terawatt-hours (TWh) range in 2021, roughly 0.9% to 1.3% of global final electricity demand, according to an International Energy Agency report on data centers and data transmission networks. That’s more energy than some countries consume in a year.

Related to this is the exponential growth we’re experiencing in internet traffic. In 2021, there were 4.9 billion internet users across the world—nearly two-thirds of the global population, according to Statista. Cisco, meanwhile, has projected global internet traffic to reach 396 exabytes per month this year, up from 122 exabytes per month in 2017. Altogether, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector accounts for more than 2% of global carbon emissions.

Now Is the Time To Act

While the energy dilemma in the electronics industry seems rather daunting, it is not insurmountable. For one, the servers used in newer hyperscale datacenters tend to be more power efficient than their older counterparts. The power usage efficiency (PUE)—total energy needed divided by energy used for computing—of conventional data centers is about 2.0 compared to about 1.2 for hyperscale data centers, according to a report in Nature.

In addition, there are several key areas where we can expect better outcomes through the integration of more sustainable practices:

  • Energy delivery: Expanding reliance on renewable energy sources, while also locating data centers and networking hubs closer to sources like wind and solar can make a big difference. So can the use of techniques like sustainable battery technology, such as nickel-zinc. Major hyperscale data center operators have already achieved, or plan to soon achieve, 24/7 operation on carbon-free energy.
  • Electronics system design: A system-to-silicon approach to the design of electronic systems can reduce power consumption. There are also techniques to enhance energy dissipation, as well as opportunities to use technologies like AI to optimize chips for energy efficiency. Another key aspect of system design is the growing software content from firmware to operating system to application software.
  • Silicon technology: The use of energy-efficient materials such as silicon carbide, new transistor devices such as FinFETs, and technologies like silicon photonics and quantum computing can optimize energy usage.
  • Operations: Sustainable measures can be applied across the supply chain from chip and system design to electronic design automation (EDA) solutions, IP, fabrication, and package assembly. Many semiconductor companies have set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and there’s room to do more.

Holistic Approach to Energy-Efficient Design

Let’s take a deeper dive into the area of system design. By applying a holistic, software-driven approach, from architecture through signoff, Synopsys customers have demonstrated the ability to achieve >50% energy efficiency.  Let’s have a look at the main design phases to understand how Synopsys’ solutions have enabled system designers to achieve optimal performance per watt:

  • Software: The software does a lot of the heavy lifting, orchestrating power management in the chip and determining critical scenarios for power analysis and optimization during SoC design. It is, therefore, critical to profile and optimize the software to ensure maximum energy efficiency in the SoC.
  • Architecture: Power management strategies such as dynamic voltage and frequency scaling (DVFS), power domains, and voltage islands can bring substantial savings. Along with these strategies, macro-architectural tradeoffs for power-performance, as well as IP selection and tradeoffs, can bring the power savings to the 30%-to-50% range.
  • RTL: Micro-architectural tradeoffs for clock, data, memory, and glitch power contribute to the savings, as can finding and fixing the RTL power blocks and using tool-guided clock gating, data gating, and memory sizing. The potential power savings here: 15% to 30%.
  • Implementation: Applying automatic optimization in areas such as dynamic and leakage power, power integrity with power, performance, and area (PPA) tradeoffs, and power-aware test pattern generation can produce results to the tune of 10% to 15% power savings.
  • Signoff: An approach centered on signoff for power and power integrity targets, along with dynamic and leakage power recovery with surgically precise engineering change order (ECO) changes, can yield 5% to 10% power savings.
  • Verification: Centering verification efforts on the verification of UPF power intent and UPF-driven functional verification can contribute to greater energy efficiency.

Synopsys customers have achieved these result ranges using our end-to-end solution for design and verification of energy-efficient SoCs. Software-driven, low-power design solutions, which support UPF (IEEE 1801) low-power intent, can help optimize PPA, while our low-power verification solution can help teams detect and resolve low-power bugs early in the cycle. Technologies like the Synopsys™ autonomous AI application for chip design uses reinforcement learning to enhance power as well as performance and area for chips. Integrating a portfolio of low-power IP solutions can also help reduce chip power consumption while accelerating time to market. Silicon lifecycle management, providing on-chip sensors for monitoring and analytics, can generate actionable insights about power consumption.

Shaping a Smart Future

From refrigerators that can order groceries to surgery-performing robotics, the level of intelligence, connectivity, and automation in our world is breathtaking. While each of these applications can bring tremendous benefit, they also create a substantial footprint in terms of energy consumption and carbon emissions.

At Synopsys, we believe that our role in shaping the future of Smart Everything brings not only great opportunities but important responsibilities, including for the environment. We call this our Smart Future strategy. We believe that the future is not smart unless it is sustainable, fair, and secure. The environmental aspect of this strategy has a two-pronged approach. The first prong is to partner across our business ecosystem to drive positive change. We execute on this approach in many ways. In addition to bringing to market solutions that help our customers reduce energy consumption, Synopsys is also part of 21 companies and organizations that have pledged this fall to the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) to increase semiconductor energy efficiency by a factor of 1,000 over the next 20 years. The idea behind the Energy Efficiency Scaling for 2 Decades (EES2) initiative is to ultimately increase “the economic competitiveness of American semiconductor manufacturers and strengthen domestic clean energy supply chains,” while building on the aims of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, according to the DoE. Initiatives such as EES2, along with commitments by other companies in the semiconductor ecosystem to mitigate their impact on our climate, are important actions toward a more sustainable future.

The second prong to our environmental strategy is to optimize our own operational footprint.  Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is just one of many actions we are taking to that end. In addition, our company is one of four anchor tenants in one of the largest corporate aggregated renewable energy procurement agreements to date, contracting 15MW of wind energy annually from a wind farm that went online recently in Throckmorton County, Texas. 2022 also marks our fourth year running for achieving CarbonNeutral® company certification across our global operations.

In closing, the electronics industry has an opportunity to do its part to mitigate the environmental impact of its innovations. Synopsys is among many in the ecosystem who are leading the charge to create a more sustainable future.

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