Internet Energy

Mike Taylor | 3 July 2016

A Google search costs nothing right? Well, apart from the bit of your privacy that Google tracks to use to sell you stuff.

But there’s another cost – the energy it takes to power Google’s servers to bring you answers in fractions of a second.

A few years ago a number went around citing that a single Google search produced seven grams of carbon. That number wasn’t true, but the question still lingers – what is the carbon footprint of our internet usage?

It’s hard to pinpoint how much carbon is produced with every Google search or episode of House of Cards streamed from Netflix, but the problem is inescapable. As the number of people accessing the internet climbs, and the amount of our lives we use the internet for gets bigger, so does the energy cost of running the hardware which drives the internet.

But really, it’s not about the energy usage, but where that energy comes from. Burning coal or gas rather than using renewable energy sources is the root of the problem.

The major players have all taken ambitious steps to move their energy consumption to renewable sources. As of 2015, Apple – of course – was leading the way, with 100% of their energy coming from renewable sources. Facebook and Google have pledged to go totally green as well, but aren’t there yet, with 49% and 46% of their energy coming from clean sources respectively. And Amazon, despite stressing that watching Netflix is more carbon friendly than reading books or, well, breathing (Amazon stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the existence of libraries) has pledged to make the move to renewable energy. In 2015 it got just 23% of its energy from renewable sources.

Of course, these companies with a consumer face have a bigger reason to go green than data centres which are invisible to the public. And as we store more and more information in the cloud these servers will use more energy. This is also affected by the energy markets in which these companies operate – in places like North and South Carolina, Singapore, and Taiwan the utility providers hold a monopoly and have no reason to switch their production to more expensive renewable energy. And as hosting companies have an incentive to move to whatever location is cheapest for them, that may not always align with locations where energy comes from renewable sources.

So while using Google as a spellchecker isn’t doing much to advance global warming, rapidly expanding internet usage is going to be an ever-growing factor unless major change happens soon.