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How much electricity does the internet use?

The internet sits at the heart of what is believed to be the greenest type of economy – the so-called knowledge economy.  Green, because the tools of the new economy – laptops, tablets, smartphones, 3d-printers, etc – are very low energy devices.  Green too, because the digital products – mp3 music files, kindle e-book files, etc – cost next to nothing to reproduce.  Power the tools of the knowledge economy on renewable energy and we could make a real impact on climate change.

That is the myth of the knowledge economy.  The reality is a lot less palatable.  The fact that it takes little energy to charge a tablet or a smartphone misses the point.  The real action is not in the devices that we use, but in the massive datacentres that store the content of an exponentially growing world wide web.

Christopher Helman at Forbes calculates US internet energy consumption alone at 70 billion kilowatt hours per year – the equivalent of 1.8% of the USA’s massive electricity consumption:

“To generate 70 billion kwh you’d need power plants with a baseload capacity of 8,000 megawatts — equivalent to about 8 big nuclear reactors, or twice the output of all the nation’s solar panels.”

The good news is that efficiency measures taken at the datacentres have helped to curb the increase in electricity consumption.  According to Helman, these measures mean:

“Data centers are on track to use 73 billion kwh by 2020. That’s a much slower pace of power demand growth than in the early days of the interwebs — in large part because most new servers are being deployed in very large data centers (think 400,000 square feet) that operate at high utilization rates and with advanced cooling systems and redundant power supplies. If not for increases in efficiency since 2010, data centers would likely be using 200 billion kwh by 2020.”

Helman also argues that we must measure internet electricity consumption against the likely alternatives.  Mass production of books, CDs and DVDs was far more energy intensive than sharing mp3, mp4 and epub files.

Where Helman goes wrong is in failing to follow the full energy trail.  Yes the data centres are large energy users.  However, we must also factor in the mineral extraction, global transportation and mass production facilities that operate on massive economies of scale to produce the servers, computers, tablets and smartphones, and the wiring, fibre optic cabling and satellite infrastructure that are also essential components of the global communications system.  Add these in, and we discover that watching a single hour of YouTube video once a week uses the same energy as it takes to continuously power two modern refrigerators.

The knowledge economy may be better than what came before it… but green it isn’t.

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