Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Internet's Energy Bill

It is easy to overlook some of the energy costs associated with our daily lives.  We pay close attention to the energy required by our car and home climate control as the consumption occurs directly before us, and the use hits our wallets hard.  Until recently, I had never thought about the energy costs associated with internet use.

I am not referring to the energy used by my home computer when accessing the internet – we are all well aware of this.  I am actually referring to the land-based processors that my server calls upon when using the internet.  It turns out that the amount of energy consumed by these massive centers is anything but negligible.  But, as these facilities are located so far from us, we give no thought the energy they consume.

The other reason we think nothing of the cost of the processors called upon for web-surfing is because we do not foot that bill.  These energy costs find their way to the companies that are responsible for the processing, and no company processes more than Google.

Every time you conduct a search on Google’s engine, processors far away crunch some numbers very quickly to yield millions of results for you and organize them in terms of relevance.  This processing comes at a cost: there is no such thing as a free search.

One percent of all power produced on Earth is consumed by internet processing centers.  That is comparable to the entire consumption of a small to medium-sized developed country.  The piece of the power plant pie devoted to internet processing is expected to grow significantly over the coming decades.  As such, companies like Google pay close attention to the cost of a kW-hr in the regions where they plan on setting up shop.

Our access to and sharing of information via the internet is a precious commodity that we often take for granted.  Those of us who are more environmentally conscious may become more selective about our internet use, as the link between energy use and global warming is well-known.  As for Google, I have a suggestion on how to save them a few Joules here and there: Do we really need millions of search results?

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