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The internet saves a huge amount of energy … even as it burns up a large amount

April 20th, 2015 · No Comments

It is seriously difficult and even more seriously important for us to consider our energy and climate challenges and opportunities with systems thinking. Let’s consider the all-encompassing information revolution which, clearly, is integrally tied to energy and energy usage. (After all, omething is behind your screen turning on, isn’t it?) If one takes a systems approach, even as knowing we could be doing an awful lot better, it is clear that the “information technology is good for climate” and that “The energy impact of web searches is very LOW“.

As energy expert, Stanford Professor Dr. Jonathan Koomey put it several years ago:

Most folks think that the power used by computers is a lot more than it actually is, and that it’s growing at incredible rates. Neither one of these beliefs is true, but they reflect a stubborn sense that the economic importance of IT somehow must translate into a large amount of electricity use. That incorrect belief masks an important truth: Information technology has beneficial environmental effects that vastly outweigh the direct environmental impact of the electricity that it consumes.


The really important story is that while computers use electricity, they are not a huge contributor to total electricity consumption, and while it’s a good idea to make computers energy efficient, it’s even more important to focus on the capabilities information technology (IT) enables for the broader society.  Computers use a few percent of all electricity, but they can help us to use the other 95+% of electricity (not to mention natural gas and oil) a whole lot more efficiently.

As an example of this latter point, consider downloading music versus buying it on a CD.  … the worst case for downloads and the best case for physical CDs resulted in 40% lower emissions of greenhouse gases for downloads when you factor in all parts of the product lifecycle (Weber et al. 2009). When comparing the best case for downloads to the best case for physical CDs, the emissions reductions are 80%. …

And, sending an email rather than a postcard by international aircraft … and … using gps navigation to avoid getting lost while burning gasoline … and … smart use of information technology enables the economy to operate more efficiently and with a lower footprint.

So, being quite clear that smart adaptation and leveraging of information technology enables a more efficient and lower polluting economy, there is a truth: computers burn electricity, server farms burn electricity, making the computer equipment has resource demands, etc … Thus,


And, taking Energy Smart practices can help reduce the footprint and save costs.

These include purchasing decisions, such as the how many different systems to buy to the ever-present debate of laptop vs desktop

Energy efficiency and consumption are a key design element to laptop computers that make the devices much less power hungry than desktop PC counterparts. Desktop computers are permanently tethered to a massive power supply, making energy efficiency a bonus or a perk as opposed to a functional necessity. … Laptop computers consume up to 80 percent less electricity than desktop computers

Obviously, there are some basic choices about set-up (such as having an advanced power strip to reduce vampire load issues) and choices about power management — such as actually turning off your computer and monitor before you leave the desk at the end of the day.

The basic points information technology and the worldwide web are making the economy work more efficiently … and therefore with lower pollution.

As Koomey concluded a debunking of the myth of huge internet energy demands

So Google, Youtube, blog, and flickr as much as you want.  If you are worried about your carbon footprint, buy 100% green power and do an efficient retrofit on your house to cover your emissions “” and let the Internet keep saving people energy and resources.

Indeed, replacing material consumption and transportation with electricity is almost certainly a good thing from a climate perspective since it is considerably easier to generate carbon-free electricity than it is to have carbon free-transportation or carbon-free versions of books and newspapers and inventories and offices



For weird, sort of uncertain reasons, there is (as “debunking” above suggests) a concerted effort to suggest that internet use is an overwhelming part of our energy system.  And, in using the internet’s “Series of Tubes,” it is very easy to be caught up with the data that comes from these who falsely (okay, generously speaking: incorrectly) state “that generating the electricity needed for a Google search emitted half as much carbon as did boiling a cup of tea”. Note that Google put the figure at 1/35th that half-a-cup-of-tea number. Again, going with Koomey from his “Tempest in a Tea Pot“:

Information technology (IT) facilities do use electricity, but moving electrons is always less energy intensive and environmentally damaging than moving atoms.

While it is important to improve the energy efficiency of IT facilities …, it is the NET environmental impact that matters, not the direct electricity use and carbon emissions of these facilities treated in isolation.

driving an average car just one mile and back to the nearest library to manually search for information produces more than 100-times more greenhouse-gas emissions than a web search

Within in mind, we are ready to consider the infographic after the fold.

This appeared in the inbox earlier today with the following introduction:

Our team at Ghergich & Co. (where we produce awesome, visual content) just teamed up with CustomMade to create this infographic on Carbon Footprint of Internet. After perusing your site, I thought your readers might enjoy it.

On first glance, my reaction was “yes”.  And, then I started to recall the perspective of experts like Kooney: sure, the internet uses electricity and we can do (far) better with managing that energy use but (a) this is often exaggerated in sound-bite ways and (b) these discussions all-too-often occur in a stove-pipe manner, without consider benefits.

The Ghergich infographic has some great material and some basic (worthwhile) recommendations (such as unplugging unused electronics and go tablet rather than laptop (and laptop rather than desktop) in computing use).  On the other hand, there is the reference to the questionable (perhaps false) internet search = making a cup of tea claim. And, the meaningful amount of energy that the internet uses is stated with a reminder coming — at the end of the infographic — that there are efficiencies (and energy savings) associated with that usage.  For me, my “yes” turned into “let’s think and talk about it”.

With these thoughts in mind, take a look at the infographic and share your thoughts.


Click to Enlarge Image

Carbon Footprint of the Internet

Carbon Footprint of the Internet
Infographic by CustomMade

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Tags: truthiness