In a world where slogans and policies like ‘net zero’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘climate change’ and ‘reducing consumption’ are everywhere, driving social and political changes, is it time we looked at the internet?
We are told to cut down on driving, eating meat, and flying. Still, so far, internet use has not really been mentioned as problematic, despite the fact, the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden predicts that the internet will use 20% of the world’s total electricity consumption by 2025.
That’s a staggering number, up from a still admittedly large 8% in 2012. As more people get online and more activities move online, this number will soar even higher.
however, that headline figure of 20% has been criticised as excessive. In 2011, Justin Ma and colleague Barath Raghavan of ICSI and the University of California attempted to measure how much electricity the internet uses.
To get to a credible number, they worked on the following assumptions. The world uses 750 million desktop computers, 750 million laptop computers, 1 billion smartphones, and 100 million servers.
In addition, the power needed to create computers, network connections, mobile reception towers, and other hardware was added to their maths. The hardware was referred to as ‘embodied energy’ or ‘emergy’.
The hardware was weighted on the average life cycle and given an average energy value, assuming that not every device uses the same amount of power.
Ma and Raghavens’ calculated that the internet used 84 to 143 gigawatts of electricity every year, between 3.6%-6.2% of all electricity worldwide. This rose to 170-307 gigawatts if related hardware was added to the total.
It’s still a significant number, and while it’s now a decade out of date, it equated to only less than 2% of total worldwide energy consumption at the time. No need to panic yet then, right?
The move to clean energy
Still, even with the best minds differing over the numbers, we know the internet uses a lot of power. Headlines like ‘Silicon valley’s dirty secret’ splash the vast energy consumption of massive servers run by the likes of Amazon and Google to keep their operations running over front pages.
But much of the debate misses a crucial point. Amazon and Google are two of the smartest businesses on the planet, running on complete efficiency. Wasting energy at the scale they operate on would hurt profits – a lot.
The average data centre (which powers everything from news domains to online entertainment sites like Raptor Casino) will have a power usage efficiency (PUE) of 2.0. Google has got their PUE score right down to 1.12, and it is getting lower all the time. It’s only a matter of time before it hits the perfect 1.0.
Facebook’s Lulea centre in cold Sweden runs on clean hydroelectric power and uses outside air for cooling.
The big three of Facebook, Alphabet (Google) and Apple, among other high-profile tech names, are committed to using 100% renewable energy. Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 and remains the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy.
Microsoft has sought to push its climate policies even further, promising by 2050 to have removed all the carbon it has emitted since it was founded in 1975 using new technologies by 2050.
Future profitability points to changes
So, while the internet does use a tremendous amount of energy, that is not necessarily a bad thing if that energy is clean.
There is still a long way to go, though. Greenpeace IT analyst Gary Cook says that overall only about 20% of the electricity used in the world’s data centres is so far renewable, with the other 80% still coming from fossil fuels.
Massive internet players like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba have yet to commit to any climate policies. But as clean energy becomes more reliable and affordable, the profit motives should be enough to ensure that even the internet’s biggest polluters change their ways rapidly.