Green Computing: Internet Energy Use

Curated by Anne Herrington & Charlie Moran
October 30, 2012

Although the Internet seems to be free, it actually consumes huge amounts of electricity. As the resources in this collection point out, globally the internet has a larger carbon footprint than air travel. The U.S. internet alone consumes more power than the U.S. automobile industry, and more than the nation of Mexico. To support the internet, huge data centers are required—vast server farms that need to be powered and cooled–a double whammy, from an energy-use standpoint.

As the Manfred Dworschak article in the first resource notes, Google, a major player in the data-center business, is now building a server farm in The Dalles, Oregon, using hydroelectric power from the nearby Columbia River—green power, to be sure, but power that would otherwise be used by others for other purposes.  But Google is not the only player. To support their online systems, banks need to lease or maintain data centers; the NASDAQ stock exchange maintains huge server farms in northern New Jersey; and Facebook has just built its own data center to support the millions of users of its platform.

As Stephen Hargreaves notes in our second resource, “The Internet: One Big Power Suck,” the increase in internet power use has been a “godsend” for power companies, who otherwise would be facing a radical decrease in demand, caused in part by the economic recession we are experiencing and in part by conservation measures undertaken by corporations and individuals. 

So there is the problem: the internet and its affordances require huge amounts of electrical power, with a resultant cost to the environment. But where are the solutions? The title of our third resource suggests one answer: “We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us.” In this essay from the New York Times, Shelley Polodny argues that digital information has actual weight and environmental cost. He notes further that we, the end-users, are responsible for 70% of this “weight,” as we “browse, share, and entertain ourselves.” He outlines potential efficiencies in data storage and retrieval, but he writes that “it still is a question whether the planet can continue to feed our digital appetite.” He observes that it is easier, both for corporations and individuals, to keep everything in data storage than it is to delete what is no longer useful, but he asks us to housekeep our data storage, however inconvenient this may be. Since reading this article, both of us have deleted the thousands of messages in our mailers’ “Trash” and Sent” folders—some of the messages containing big graphics, and all stored on our University’s mail system, which is maintained by—guess who? –Google! and stored somewhere in Google’s vast network of server farms.

In our fourth resource, an NPR micro-essay on the costs of the internet, Adrienne Hill, the NPR sustainability reporter, wonders whether we really need to download You-Tube videos of a three-year-old who cries out his love for Justin Bieber. 17,000,000 people have downloaded this video.  And together we have downloaded 700 billion You-tube videos in the past year, all stored in, and passing through, the vast data centers/server farms required to support this traffic.

Our fifth resource, “Sustainable Computing: First Thoughts” by one of us (Charlie), points to some of the actions we should be considering as teachers, writing program leaders, and as citizens in the digital age. This short essay reinforces and amplifies the points made in our third and fourth resources.

As we hope this collection makes clear, responsible use of the internet is important. We need to keep the environmental impact of the internet in perspective, however. There are other, bigger fish to fry. We think of the energy expended by the military in our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the environmental consequences of this expenditure, and we think also of the energy expended, particularly in the U.S., though increasingly in China and India, in automobile travel.  The internet consumes 2% of the world’s energy–not at all a trivial amount, but just part of the energy we use in our everyday lives. We note the irony: we are composing this collection, one that will be stored in a data center and downloaded, we hope, by many visitors to the Digital Is site. Despite the irony, we believe that green computing should be part of our own attempts, at the individual and institutional levels, to conserve our planet for the generations to come.

What's Inside