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The internet as a energy hog: what if it isn’t true?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
7th September 2013

Excerpted from the City of the Future blog.

This excerpt focuses on the dematerialization effect:

“We’ve heard the statistics — the rapid growth of the Internet, the cloud, data centers and computing in general is taking a huge and growing toll on our energy reserves and the climate, by sucking up an ever-increasing amount of electricity to keep going. Even doing a simple Google search takes as much energy as boiling a pot of tea. And–shockingly–using your iPhone blows as much electricity as your refrigerator, when you take wireless connections, data use an battery charging into account.

Except it’s not true. According to a fascinating expose by Joe Romm on Climate Progress, claims that the Internet is an energy hog can be traced almost entirely to reports written by Mark Mills for the coal industry–presumably to promote the idea without coal, the all the phones would die and we would have to go back to using paper dictionaries.

Romm and colleague Jonathan Koomey have spent years debunking these claims; Koomey recently posted a list of documents summarizing the controversy. As he writes in the post,

Mr. Mills has made so many incorrect claims that he simply shouldn’t be treated as a serious participant in discussions about electricity used by information technology (IT) equipment.

In fact, Koomey and Romm argue, the Internet and computing at best use a few percent of total electricity consumption. But they save much more by allowing for “dematerialization” of things like music and movies. A recent study suggested that even in the worst case, downloading an album rather than buying a CD causes 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In the best case, downloading reduces the footprint by 80 percent.

Not only do streaming movies or buying songs online save energy overall compared to shipping DVDs or driving to Blockbuster; because they rely on electricity rather than burning oil, they can become more efficient over time, as renewables power an ever-greater percentage of electrical consumption.

Furthermore, information technology allows for all manner of innovation that can make consumption far more efficient–from smart-grids to Zipcars to behavior change decision-making tools like Opower.

This is all good as far as it goes. It seems intuitive that dematerializing things (exchanging “atoms” for “bits”) that are essentially information anyway would save energy; it’s nice to know that’s true.”


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