Hat tip to Chris Harries who put me onto this amazing piece of info. I’ve been meaning to write about this for ages, but with my internet access limited to my smart phone, blogging is difficult, for the time being.
I was prompted to visit this subject because I was asked for a citation for a comment I made on good old facebook that there was not enough renewable energy installed globally to run the internet, let alone doing all the other stuff ‘green people’ think will be achieved using solar and wind. Like making steel without coal, can you believe it? in fact, I was way off the mark…… the internet consumes three times as much energy as renewables produce!
So even before the stuff that goes into making computers and phones and modems and servers and whatever else goes into making our hi-tech lifestyle – like, let us not forget, the very renewables that are assumed by many to power the future – said renewables are again found very wanting…….
The source for this information is Low Tech Magazine, in an article titled Why We Need a Speed Limit for the Internet which starts with:
In terms of energy conservation, the leaps made in energy efficiency by the infrastructure and devices we use to access the internet have allowed many online activities to be viewed as more sustainable than offline.
On the internet, however, advances in energy efficiency have a reverse effect: as the network becomes more energy efficient, its total energy use increases. This trend can only be stopped when we limit the demand for digital communication.
To me, this sounds just like Jevons’ Paradox all over again….. and I’m not surprised either. As I continually go on about, nothing we do is sustainable. I’ve been on the internet ever since its early inception when dial up was as good as it got. And I remember that back then, loading web pages was actually no slower than it is now with high speed broadband. The reason for this is that as speed increased, websites got fatter. A bit like cars, houses, and people have over the past 20 years. Consumption rules, the more the better, the economy needs it!
As websites started loading on advertising, gif files, then flash files, all to keep us all amused, with vast arrays of ever more links and videos and photos and who knows what else is hiding behind all that code, hard drives to store all that stuff got bigger and bigger, more and more RAM was needed, servers got hotter and hotter requiring ever more fans and airconditioning just to keep them cool, etc etc…….
In recent years, the focus has been mostly on the energy use of data centers, which host the computers (the “servers”) that store all information online. However, in comparison, more electricity is used by the combination of end-use devices (the “clients”, such as desktops, laptops and smartphones), the network infrastructure (which transmits digital information between servers and clients), and the manufacturing process of servers, end-use devices, and networking devices.
A second factor that explains the large differences in results is timing. Because the internet infrastructure grows and evolves so fast, results concerning its energy use are only applicable to the year under study. Finally, as with all scientific studies, researcher’s models, methods and assumptions as a base for their calculations vary, and are sometimes biased due to beliefs or conflicts of interest. For example, it won’t surprise anyone that an investigation of the internet’s energy use by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity sees much higher electricity consumption than a report written by the information and communication technology industry itself.
The other large factor is of course the vastly growing number of users. I recently saw an article stating that third world countries are totally bypassing copper wire phone technology and going wirelessly for smart phones.
So how much energy does the internet consume? The article quotes a figure of 8% of total global electricity production, or 1,815 TWh of electricity, a figure which is already three years old as it was calculated in 2012.
If we were to try to power the (2012) internet with pedal-powered generators, each producing 70 watt of electric power, we would need 8.2 billion people pedaling in three shifts of eight hours for 365 days per year. (Electricity consumption of end-use devices is included in these numbers, so the pedalers can use their smartphones or laptops while on the job). Solar or wind power are not much of a solution, either: 1,815 TWh equals three times the electricity supplied by all wind and solar energy plants in 2012, worldwide.
Then you have to ask, which is growing faster, the internet, or renewable generation? Researchers, the article states, estimate that by 2017, the electricity use of the internet will rise to between 2,547 TWh (expected growth scenario) and 3,422 TWh (worst case scenario). If the worst-case scenario materializes, internet-related energy use will almost double in just 5 years time. So how much has renewable energy grown? Well…… it’s almost impossible to find out, because literally every site I’ve searched only quotes installed power, which as anyone reading this must surely know, is not related to energy produced, one iota….. and we should all also know that renewables never produce what they are supposed to, because in order to access funding for manufacturing and installing these devices, their energy production forecasts are always overestimated. Like the Ivanpah solar thermal plant that seems to be producing just 25% of its anticipated output. And this chart below shows just how far renewable energy needs to go before it’s actually effective.
Because smartphones move much of the computational effort (and thus the energy use) from the end-device to the data center, the rapid adoption of smartphones is coupled with the equally rapid growth in cloud-based computer services, which allow users to overcome the memory capacity and processing power limitations of these mobile devices. Because the data processing, and the resulting outcome must be transmitted from the end-use device to the data center and back again, the energy use of the wireless network infrastructure also increases. Classic Jevons Paradox….. Like I keep saying, renewables will never power business as usual.