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How the Internet Burns & Saves Energy

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 {complink 11480|Amazon.com Inc.}, 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.

14 comments on “How the Internet Burns & Saves Energy

  1. FLYINGSCOT
    October 10, 2012

    I never really thought too much about this before but your article is enlightening and pretty scary.  i need to log off now and reduce my carbon footprint.

  2. Nemos
    October 10, 2012

    Your article fulfilled me with deep thoughts and especially this part “A mid-sized datacenter's energy consumption is comparable to that of a mid-sized village.”

    That is something a bit scary and turns on environments alarms. 

  3. Adeniji Kayode
    October 11, 2012

    This is really inspiring, thank you.You really gave light to an aspect most internet users never even think about.

    But what could possibly be done to this when internet usage keep sky-rocketing every year, thanks to facebook, mobile internet devices and other social media.

  4. Adeniji Kayode
    October 11, 2012

    Just thinking, apart from the so much CO generated as a result of our 24/7, what other emission (s) are produced from our use of internet?

  5. Barbara Jorgensen
    October 11, 2012

    I found this data shocking, but it is logical when broken down as Cagri presents it. (Thanks as always, Cagri!) Just because our PC isn't dimming the lights every time we turn it on doesn't mean the Internet isn't an energy pig. Somewhere out there servers are humming away so I can write this less-than-insightful comment. 🙂 Maybe I should start a running log of my carbon footprint and penalize myself every time I write something stupid…

  6. Cryptoman
    October 11, 2012

    I also found the energy consumption figures shocking. The problem is majority of this consumption happens in the background which is not transparent to the user. Therefore, it is very difficult to appreciate how mouse clicks translate into energy consumption.

    Having said that let's not forget how internet and online presence helps reduce carbon footprint by minimising travelling. Such energy savings should not be overlooked as they are significant helpers to the environment. In the future, it is not hard to imagine that people will be able to do more online and such savings will grow. I particularly like the idea of 3D printers as it is a perfect example of this rule of thumb to save energy: “Move the information, not the physical objects.”

    I am glad to receive such positive comments on the article and I am happy to see that it raised a few eyebrows and made you think twice.

     

  7. Wale Bakare
    October 11, 2012

    >>it's almost certain that the Internet and advanced technology will help conserve more energy<<

    Penalizing the giant internet firms for me not the best – the issue is processing and storing millions of people's data require a huge server farm. Definitely, all these servers have to operate in accordance to performance per watt usage.

    Meanwhile, i think carbon neutral geothermal supply is a good example to help conserving energy, could be used by datacenters around the world. Currently Iceland is investing in this, and it learned that the country is trying to attract firms from the North America and Europe to build their datacenters there, coupled with the nation's cold climate running 12 months calendar year.  Also, other arctic places too are  good locations to host cloud computing data centers.

  8. Cryptoman
    October 11, 2012

    Interesting and clever move…

    Moving the servers north for cooling purposes is an energy efficient method of maintaining large server farms. However, how will the country's IP backbone support the high volume of IP traffic? I guess that will require a huge amount of infrastructural investment.

  9. Wale Bakare
    October 12, 2012

    Sure its a huge investiment! The way its been done is similar to current fiber cable laying project from Europe to Africa. Some Africa nations have been spending huge amount of money on submarine communication cable across the atlantic ocean through Portugal, England to West Africa nations.

    Iceland's fiber cable too is being laid to support such a high volume of IP transport.

  10. Adeniji Kayode
    October 13, 2012

    @Cryptoman,

    Good point. but what do you think the ratio of the carbon footprint generated as a result of the use of internet compared to the one generated by travelling could be?

  11. Adeniji Kayode
    October 13, 2012

    @Wale,

    You are absolutely right.

  12. Cryptoman
    October 13, 2012

    Good question Adeniji. Let's try to come up with an estimation.

    According to a carbon footprint calculator I found on the web, for a 50 mile trip in an average sized petrol car, the carbon footprint is about 20 kg per person. If one assumes a daily return trip for work, the carbon footprint per week becomes 20 x 2 x 5 days = 200 kg/week.

    Let us assume that a PC user spends 12 hours per day performing internet searches at a rate of 1 click per minute. At this rate the user is able to perform 720 searches per day which generates 5 kg of carbon print (using the 7 gr/search figure provided in the article). If the user does this for a living for 5 days a week, the weekly carbon footprint becomes 5 x 5 days = 25 kg/week

    Based on the above calculations, even in the worst case, working from home and earning a living by using the web saves 8 times as much carbon footprint!

    I know the above calculation is a rough estimate but nevertheless it still gives an interesting picture to think about.

     

  13. Adeniji Kayode
    October 15, 2012

    @Crytoman,

    Thanks for the simple arithmetic, it really give an idea of  some aspect of the article.

  14. Cryptoman
    October 19, 2012

    Hi Adeniji.

    Just to give you a “visual” idea of the scale of the energy issue, please check this video of a Google data centre. This video may put the mathematical explanation I gave into perspective. I think the video is pretty self-explanatory.

    Pay particular attention to what they call the “cooling towers” in the video.

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