Data Overload: A Look into the Energy Impact of the Internet

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Here at the WegoWise office, we try to be as environmentally friendly as possible. We recycle when we can, use biodegradable cleaning products, and during the summer we ditch the overhead lighting in favor of good ol’ fashion sunshine. We’ve also gone paperless by sharing files over Dropbox and Google Docs. With everything going into the cloud these days, the Internet has played a key role in decreasing demand for physical goods and services, which we can all agree is a good thing for the environment. But what about the environmental impact of the Internet itself?

The rise in energy use of data centers and personal gadgets- as well as the carbon emissions they generate- has gotten a lot of traction in the news and scientific community lately. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Department of Energy has announced a plan to establish energy efficiency standards and labeling programs for all computers and servers sold in the United States. This ruling has the potential to influence tens of millions of consumers in the US, so let’s take a more detailed look at the Internet’s ecological footprint:

Data Centers: Past and Present

Back in the dark ages, when Facebook only had a couple million users and Amazon was just an online bookstore, web companies typically only needed one or two server sites to process their digital information. Today, those server sites have swelled into colossal data centers that house thousands of servers, backup power facilities, and industrial cooling systems. The world’s largest data center is currently being built in LangFang, China and upon completion in 2016, will expand out over 6.3 million square feet.

What’s driving this?

In short: you, me, and everyone we know. Every time you open an email attachment, watch a movie on Netflix, or order Pad Thai off Seamless, huge amounts of data are mobilized in a process that largely relies on web servers. These servers, which act as the backbone of the Internet, are typically run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to satisfy our insatiable appetite for web content. Keeping these systems up and running requires immense amounts of power. In 2010 alone, data centers in the United States consumed roughly 2% of the country’s electricity. That may not seem like a lot, but consider this:  by pulling 76 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity off the grid, data centers are using the equivalent of six nuclear power plants each year.  The crux of the issue is how wasteful and inefficient the process is. Most of the energy is used to run idle servers and backup generators that manage surges in Internet traffic. According to the New York Times, as much as 90% of the energy used by data centers results in waste.  

Cleaning Up the Cloud

Thankfully, it’s not all gloom and doom. Many companies are responding by building a new generation of smarter, more efficient data centers. Apple’s computing facility in Maiden, North Carolina is powered by a 100-acre solar farm and biogas fuel cells. The company has plans to build a similar photovoltaic array for it’s new data center in Reno, Nevada. Facebook is going green by cooling its new data center in Sweden with Artic outside air instead of power-hungry chillers. Other tech giants like Google and IBM are charging ahead, currently designing data centers that use up to 50% less energy.

While it may be some time until the data centers of the future are up and running, there are things we can do right now, in our own lives to reduce our digital footprint:

1. Powering Down at Home

Think about all of those gadgets you have plugged into your wall at home. Have you considered that they might be negating the efficiency gains of your new Energy Star® washer and dryer or the insulation you installed last winter? According to a recent survey done by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), consumption of heating and cooling energy in homes dropped by 10% between 1993 and 2009, but the share of appliances, lighting, and electronics rose by 10.6%, resulting in a net gain in residential energy use. So while mandatory federal standards have made household appliances vastly more energy efficient in the last 30 years, our laptops, PCs, flat screen TVs and iPads are killing those improvements.

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Photo: eia.gov

Energy.gov has lots of tips for saving energy at home and at the office. We suggest unplugging those “vampire” appliances that continuously suck out electricity, even when they are turned off. You can take action by investing in an energy use monitor, like this one made by Belkin, or better yet, let WegoWise track your utility bills and locate spikes in electricity usage.

2. Take a Digital Vacation

Do you find yourself compulsively waking up at 2 AM to check your email? Have minor nervous breakdowns when your cell reception gets down to one bar? Feel like your iPhone has become an extension of your body? You might need a digital detox. That can mean disconnecting from your laptop, cell phone, and tablets for a couple hours at night or for a whole weekend. Some people are taking it to the next level by booking digital-detox vacation packages, like this one at Camp Grounded, where tech addicts can “disconnect to reconnect.” Either way, you’ll have time to reboot and your electricity bill will thank you for it.