Monday, September 30, 2013

Energy Footprint of the Internet

The Internet, as remarkably resourceful as it is, must take in some resources to sustain itself. The cost may not be as visible as landfills or garbage islands in the middle of the ocean, but the cost still exists, and should be acknowledged.

Wastefulness, or just how I feel when I go on Reddit?

What is the energy cost of using the Internet? As it turns out, the prospects are pretty green.

One source speculates that, at the time of the article's writing, the Internet uses 170 to 307 gigawatts of electricity per year, or about two percent of worldwide energy consumption. Another source suggests that while the data is currently lacking, the direct electricity use of the Internet is at around 10% of total energy consumption.

Some things on the Internet have more intensive energy use than others. Google alone accounts for 0.013 percent of the world's energy use, which makes sense when one considers just how huge the company is. Facebook's energy use, by comparison, is cleaner. Meanwhile, bitcoin mining is particularly energy intensive, using about 150 thousand dollars of electricity per day and further affirming my general disdain for Internet libertarians.

The way that we access the Internet matters as well - wireless cellular networks use more energy than traditional data centers. Of course, data center efficiency can vary from company to company, and can be very wasteful. The combined energy use of small network equipment (routers, modems, and other devices used by individual consumers) use about 8.3 billion kW-hrs per year.

But all in all, the Internet scales fairly well as far as energy costs are concerned. There have been some rising voices about the energy costs of the Internet over the years, but the more alarmist concerns tend to get thorough counters. Some of these alarmists also seem to have a stake in the coal industry, possibly looking for an excuse to stir up more business. For a giant international network, even 10% of total energy consumption is not so unreasonable. The Internet certainly shouldn't be the first place you worry about when you're thinking about cutting energy costs (that honor might go to the transportation sector).

We're not quite hurting for a digital catalytic converter.

It's one thing to throw numbers around about the cost of using the Internet, but it doesn't mean much if we don't consider how much better or worse the alternatives are. What energy cost has the Internet saved us?

It's been reported that for every unit of electricity used up by the Internet, about ten times that is saved. The ability to "go paperless", replacing business trips with video conferences, deciding to shop online instead of driving to the store in person, and other such things have drastically reduced our energy use in many other parts of our lives. Our increased online activity has also scaled very well: although Internet use increased millions-fold from 2000 to 2006, the Internet's energy use merely doubled.

The Internet came around at a time when people had already been wrestling with environmentalism, the hole in the ozone layer, and other such concerns. Even as online entities have grown over the years, there has always been a mindfulness towards waste. Google is aggressively green, offsetting their carbon footprint through committing over a billion dollars to green energy initiatives and pushing for less wasteful databases. Their "Green Talks" are posted on YouTube for all to peruse.

Microsoft, IBM, and other technology companies has ranked among Newsweek's greenest companies. Facebook updates on its environmental efforts on a dedicated page. A sprawling number of environmentalism-focused websites have popped up over the years. The Internet has skewed towards progressiveness, and its attitude towards its own doings reflect those values. As work is done towards more efficient devices and using clean energy to fuel data centers, the Internet's own footprint is likely to only improve.

We live in a time where we are essentially certain of human-made global warming. Even now, it's okay to feel good about using the Internet.

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