Most of us hardly think of the energy consumption associated with browsing the Internet, and it's true that one individual's contribution to that consumption is small. However, the sum of the world's Internet usage has a huge impact on carbon emissions, and it's this "hidden sum" that prevents us from seeing the real picture.
When we click our mouse, we want to access information reliably and as quickly as possible. While cruising on the Information Super Highway, even a few seconds of delay is too long and feels intolerable for most of us. But, in order to promptly respond to millions of mouse clicks, Internet companies have to maintain gigantic server and storage infrastructures, and make sure these infrastructures are kept at safe temperatures in order to avoid hazardous overheating. This entire infrastructure in the background is where the energy consumption reaches high levels.
According to a report in The New York Times, worldwide, digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity. This amount of energy is equivalent to the energy production of 30 nuclear power plants.
A mid-sized datacenter's energy consumption is comparable to that of a mid-sized village.
The same NYT report also refers to McKinsey & Company's analysis, which indicates that a datacenter merely uses 6 to 12 percent of its total energy consumption to keep normal operations running. The remaining 90 percent of the energy consumption is for supporting the equipment and backup systems that need to kick in to maintain the required quality and reliability of service to the customers.
This wasteful management system is very common in the finance and banking sectors, where uninterrupted data flow is critical to business. Unfortunately, due to the heavy use of generators and uninterrupted power supplies running on fossil fuels, this is also very harmful to the environment.
Technology companies appear on top of the list of companies that regularly get penalized by government authorities for exceeding the nominal levels of energy use. One example of this is Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), which has been penalized over 24 times in the last three years. Other IT giants, such as Facebook and Google, are trying their best to restructure their operations in order to minimize energy consumptions and to avoid such heavy penalties.
In a recent study, The Climate Group said that by 2020, the Internet's carbon footprint will triple to 1.43 billion tons per year. This increase is mainly attributed to the expanding use of mobile phones and personal computers, particularly by developing economies such as China and India.
Another striking figure was published by the BBC three years ago. According to this article, "two search requests on the internet website Google produce as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle," and a typical search on a desktop computer produces about seven grams of carbon dioxide. These carbon emissions come from the electricity used by the computer and the large datacenters operated by Google.
While the figures listed above may sound a bit unrealistic at first, when we take a closer look at what happens when we click our mouse to perform a search, it should start making more sense. An Internet search transaction typically takes place between two computers that may have a huge physical separation between them. Along this large route, there is a huge network of switches and routers, which constitute the pathway for the information packets.
These information packets do not follow the same route from the source to destination. They travel different paths, through different routers and switches, to reach their destination, where they are re-assembled to their correct sequence to convey the intended message to the end user. All of the distributed technology components (such as the computers, networking equipment, and the servers) require power.
If you ask me whether I'm too concerned about the energy consumption of Internet browsing, I wouldn't be able to give a straight "yes" as an answer. I see that there is an energy cost associated with using the Internet, and we should be efficient in the way we access information. However, we should also remember that using the Internet helps to reduce carbon emissions at the same time.
One very obvious example is the savings associate with business travel. Today, teleconferencing affords the opportunity to hold meetings online instead of flying or driving, thereby saving energy and cost. Thanks to online collaboration platforms, millions of people can work from home without having to commute to a central office every day.
Similarly, the availability of digital media has saved us from having to obtain physical media, such as CDs and DVDs, that would have to be delivered by transportation dependent on fossil fuel.
When we look a bit further into the future, it's almost certain that the Internet and advanced technology will help conserve more energy. In the future, 3D printing is likely to save more energy in the transportation of goods and materials, as most of these products will be created at the destination, based on a set of instructions that can be delivered via the Web. Of course, we still have a long way to go before we reach that technological milestone.
Accurate calculation of the Internet's energy cost is not a straightforward task. However, it's important to be aware of the cost of our everyday activities on the Web, and because of this, end users and companies must be as efficient as possible.
No matter how efficient consumers are, though, the lion's share of energy consumption happens at Internet service providers and technology partners.