By Emma Bailey
The Internet has grown to become a defining force of modernity as well as an indispensable part of the world economy. As more people become connected, the Internet's appetite for energy increases as well. This is no trivial matter: Greenpeace has reported that if the World Wide Web were a country, its energy consumption would rank sixth in the world. Thus, any investments made by Internet companies to "green" up their act are of major consequence to the entire international community and the planet itself.
The Internet's carbon footprint is estimated to exceed that of air travel, adding up to over 830 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. Data centers demand the most power, but they also waste a lot of energy -- belying popular notions of the cloud as some benign, ethereal entity. And beyond personal data, applications, email servers and the like, there's one specific area that occupies a rapidly growing share of online bandwidth: streaming audio and video.
In recent years, people have steadily turned away from over-the-air television and analog cable while usage of on-demand streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Spotify has soared. When we consider that data (streaming and otherwise) is being served to a proliferation of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices, it's easy to see why the Internet consumes such a large share of the planet's energy production. As more people gain access to the benefits of online participation, particularly in developing countries, the tech sector's transition to renewable sources of power becomes more crucial than ever before.
Some large Internet companies have already taken measures to improve their commitment to clean energy. Google has invested $2.5 billion in the pursuit of workable green energy solutions, including solar photovoltaic and wind turbine technology. Now the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world, the company also buys electricity directly from wind farms near its data centers. Setting the bar high for others in the industry, Google's dedication to a greener economy will have a lasting impact, particularly if it inspires more companies to do the same.
Apple, meanwhile, boasts that all of its data centers, offices and retail locations in the United States run exclusively on renewable energy. These two massive Internet companies, along with social media powerhouse Facebook, have been praised by Greenpeace in its Click Clean report, which evaluated and ranked 110 of the world's largest websites and their publishers on their overall and renewable energy use, reporting, disclosure and advocacy.
On the other hand, the case surrounding Amazon illustrates the difficulty of determining a company's progress in switching to clean energy. Although the online retailer and owner of immense cloud resources has pledged to use 100 percent renewables as power sources, there's a lack of transparency about its efforts. Consumers are therefore left unable to gauge whether or not Amazon is successfully meeting its targets, at least until it opens up its records a bit more.
However, while they may be armed with the best of intentions, it's impossible for Internet companies to fully separate themselves from the "dirty energy" grid. Unless they own all of their own energy infrastructure, they must continue to source a large percentage of their electrical power from traditional energy suppliers. While some of these power-generating enterprises have embraced renewable sources of energy, plenty more of are wedded to fossil fuel industry, and are therefore part of the overall problem.
In addition to creating close to 23 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year from the burning of fossil fuels, Dominion Power recently reported that the energy sector is responsible for nearly 40 percent of all man-made CO2 emissions. Using the atmosphere as our personal garbage dump has already had noticeable effects on global temperatures; if we do nothing, business as usual could be the end of us. But because of their power in the marketplace, today's tech giants have the unique opportunity to lobby for more stringent regulations and laws regarding these utility companies -- many of which are publicly-owned monopolies or benefit from government subsidies.
Tech leaders have already shown their ability to disrupt and transform our daily lives in almost every possible way. Now the planet needs them to turn their attentions to perhaps the greatest threat the world has ever seen: climate change. The Internet sector has the potential to act as a beacon for other industries to emulate, and a focus on green energy in the right quarters could have a beneficial spillover effect as others seek to match their performance.
Image credit: Shardayyy
Emma Bailey is a freelance writer and blogger from the Midwest. After going to college in Florida she relocated to Chicago, where she now lives with a roommate and two rabbits. She primarily covers entertainment topics and issues pertaining to the environment. Find her on Twitter @Emma_Bailey90