The Persistent Myth of the Internet as Energy Hog

The Internet has wired the world together, accelerated globalization at breakneck speeds, and allowed every media imaginable to be accessed and downloaded, regardless of place. So it must be a massive energy consumer, right? I mean, if all that imagery imparted unto us from science fiction movies and spy thrillers is any indication, all those flashing lights and bandwith have to be powered by something, right? Well, according to a trio of well-respected scientists, the concept of the internet as energy hog is consistently overblown:

For some reason, the power used by computers is a source of endless fascination to the public. 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.
So begins a guest post by Dr. Jonathan Koomey over at Climate Progress. The piece is a response to a recent Guardian story, The dark side of cloud computing: soaring carbon emissions, which evidently makes a number of incorrect assumptions about the energy costs of the internet -- again.

Koomey notes that the specter of a popular study published over a decade ago, which claimed that computing accounted for 8% of the nation's energy consumption, and would soon skyrocket to 50%, has never been successfully completely chased from the rafters. Subsequent studies have of course found that the internet and computing hardly account for 1% of US energy consumption, and that it's preposterous to imagine it would ever account for half. Note that the total amount of energy consumed by internet use is climbing -- but the amount of energy use it offsets by providing more efficient services is too (and the internet is getting more efficient all the time, too).

But the Guardian article does show how the issue captures the public interest -- just recall the fracas over the Facebook data centers a few months back for proof. And yet, it's an issue that appears to be consistently overblown. Joe Romm sums it up as follows:

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.
It's an important thing to keep in mind as we continue to grow ever more internet-dependent. In terms of energy, it's a good thing. Read the full piece over at Climate Progress.

Tags: Energy Efficiency | United States