Why the Internet Might Save More Energy Than It Uses

I don’t think anyone reading this would question the notion that the Internet has created incalculable benefits in today’s world. Indeed, among those in their twenties or younger, it is probably difficult to imagine the world without it. A 2009 article in the Harvard Business Review, estimated that the advertising-supported internet created $444 billion in direct value, not including the time spent worth another $680 billion. But there are so many other intangibles, an entire book could easily be devoted to the subject.

But what about the costs? That too is complicated, but perhaps we can simplify it enough for a short post if we just focus on the power consumption. That should be easy enough. All we have to do is count up all the desktop computers, laptops, smart phones, tablets and e-readers on the user end, then add in all the power used by the servers and other equipment on the supplier end and we should have a pretty good estimate. That’s exactly what two researchers from University of California, Berkeley, Justin Ma and Barath Raghavan, did in their study entitled, “The Energy and Emergy of the Internet.”

They estimated:

  • 750 million laptops
  • 750 million desktops
  • 1 billion smartphones
  • 100 million servers
  • 1 million routers and router-like devices
  • 100 million LAN devices
  • 5 million cell towers
  • 75 million telecom switches
  • 1.5 billion km of fiber optic cabling and
  • 3.5 billion km of copper cabling for global telecommunications.

When considering both the energy consumed by the devices and the energy embedded in them in the course of their production, they estimated power consumption somewhere between 170 and 307 GW, or 1.1% to 1.9% of the 16 TeraWatts used by people. worldwide,  or about 11% of the power generated by renewables in the US in 2009. Roughly half of the power accounted for is embodied power.

Efforts are already underway to make the Internet more efficient. In fact, while the utilization of the Internet between 2000 and 2006 increased 3.2 million times, its power consumption merely doubled.

Still there are plenty of opportunities to do even better. The study’s authors point out that since so much of the energy is embedded in the equipment, increasing the lifespan of the equipment by not replacing it so often could actually save quite a bit. Doubling the lifespan of all components, including computers and cell phones, could actually reduce the total energy consumption by roughly 25%. But that could be a hard sell with consumers, considering the rate at which new connected gadgets keep popping up on the scene.

Microsoft talked about delayed replacement as one of several ways to make the Internet more efficient in their series on data center efficiency that we ran earlier this year. And Facebook recently described some energy efficiency measures it has taken at a server farm near the Arctic Circle.

The fact that one of the many benefits of the Internet is that it can offset energy usage in other areas, such as business travel, is not lost on the authors either. They point out that if 25 percent of all business trips were replaced with video conferencing, it could save the equivalent of 285 GW total, and thus in one fell swoop, the Internet would just about pay for itself, while saving a lot of oil in the process.

But that is only one of the many ways that the Internet can save energy. For another example, consider shopping. A study, conducted by the non-profit Center for Energy and Climate Solutions says the e-commerce is far greener than shopping at a store. If you use the ground shipping option, that will use only one-tenth as much energy if you consider the retail store itself, which had to built and lit and heated, with all those windows and doors. Based on their calculations, two 20-pound packages, as part of a full trailer load, shipped from 1000 miles away, would only account for about one-tenth of a gallon of gasoline, while your drive to the store would likely require much more than that assuming you have to drive more than the average six to eight miles to get there. Your mileage will vary.

Add this to business travel as well as the significant savings expected to accrue from the Smart Grid, it quickly becomes clear that the Internet will save far more energy than it uses.

[Image credit/Alfred T. Palmer/Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

Leave a Reply