Data Science Digital Transformation Innovation and Technology

The invisible pollution of the internet

Jeanne Duhaze
Written by Jeanne Duhaze

What If the internet became the primary cause of global warming? Ian Bitterlin, a data centre expert, estimates that by 2030, the Internet will consume 20% of the world’s electricity. Today the energy consumed by the internet is, for the most part, not of green origin. It generates an ever-increasing carbon footprint and has a detrimental impact on global warming. Large companies face social pressure and increasingly frequent investigations from independent organisations, and now are embarking on a race for a Green Internet.

The energetic greed of Internet

A high power consuming global network

To determine the energy consumption of the internet, one must ask what the Internet is. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the internet is “the large system of connected computers around the world that allows people to share information and communicate with each other”. A study conducted by Ericsson and TeliaSonera determined that the three most energy-hungry internet components of this “broad system” are the end-user equipment, data centres and networks.

The end-user equipment

According to a study from the Centre for the Digital Future in the United States in 2017, an American would spend an average of one full day per week connected to the internet. A study from Statista indicates that teenagers are even more exposed to internet: they spend about 4 hours on the internet a day, a little over a day in a week. These numbers are just further evidence of the constant connectivity we experience daily. To stay connected, we use devices that we regularly recharge, thus consuming energy.

The data centres

Data centres are also very greedy. A data centre is “a place of computers that can be kept safely” according to the Cambridge dictionary. Each click, each message sent, each video watched solicits these computer farms. They use electricity to operate, but especially to keep cool. The cooling functions of computers alone account for 40 to 50% of the electricity consumed. McKinsey & Company estimate that only 6% to 12% of the power is used to compute. The remaining part is used to prevent a surge in activity that could crash their operations.

To illustrate the amount of energy consumed by a data centre, Peter Gross, an engineer and designer of power systems for data centres said: “A single data centre can take more power than a medium-size town”. In France, the energy consumption of data centres is higher than the electricity consumption of the city of Lyon (2015, the French Electricity Union). Data Centres’ global energy consumption is up to 3% of the global energy consumption wrote The Independent in 2016.

The internet network

We can also see an increase in the development of the networks which allow access to the internet. The components of this network are for example DSL, Cable Modem, Fiber. These networks work also thanks to energy.

 

To determine the energy consumption shares of these three major Internet components, the ACEEE assessed in 2012 that for a gigabyte of data downloaded, the network is consuming 5.12 kWh power: 48% from data centres, 38% of end-users equipment, and 14% of internet networks.

 

The vagueness of the exact global consumption

Determining the global energy consumption of the internet is complicated. The Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) tried to do this once. It estimated that internet consumption accounts for 1.5% to 2% of the world’s total energy consumption in 2013. If we compare this figure with the use of other countries, the Internet would be the 5th country consuming the most energy in the world. In 2014, Jon Koomey, Professor at Stanford University and known for describing Koomey’s law, estimated this consumption to be at around 10%. However In 2017 Greenpeace estimated it at the lower rate of 7%.

There are a few reasons that can explain this critical difference. The main one being that when end-user equipment consumes energy, this energy is not necessarily used to connect to the internet. A laptop or computer can be used offline to play video games. Allocating the share of electricity used for the internet connection is therefore very complicated. Some experts prefer not to count the energy consumption of these devices so as not to distort the numbers. Besides, experts expect this power consumption to double every four years. The Guardian predicts that in 2020 the internet will reach 12% of global energy consumption.

With great power come great sustainable responsibilities

The dark side of the power

The problem with the energy consumption of the internet lies in how to track what kind of energy the internet network is using. As Gary Cook, a senior policy analyst at Greenpeace, said: “How we power our digital infrastructure is rapidly becoming critical to whether we will be able to arrest climate change in time. […] If the sector simply grew on its current path without any thought as to where its energy came from, it would become a major contributor to climate change far beyond what it already is.” Indeed, in 2016, the Independent wrote that the carbon footprint of data centres worldwide was equivalent to the global aviation industry, which is up to 2% of global CO2 emissions.

Some associations have therefore investigated to determine what the share of renewable energy that the data centres use to consume is. The Environmental Leader estimated that in 2015 Google and Amazon used at least 30% of fossil energy to power their data centres. In 2015, Lux Research company found out through a benchmarking on data centres owned by Google, 4 out of 7 were dependent on coal energy. In 2012, Greenpeace released the report “How Clean is your Cloud?” informing about the respect (or not) of the environment of some companies had through the use of their cloud and their data centres.

The Green Power Race

These studies by different organisations have created a race for green power for data centres of large companies. Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon now provide 100% renewable energy to their data centres or are aiming towards this objective. As an example, Amazon has been powering its servers with at least 50% renewable energy since 2018. However Greenpeace recently contradicted this information and would estimate it only at 12%. Greenpeace also points out that the change triggered by these big Western companies is not enough. Indeed, sizeable Chinese web companies such as Baidu, Tencent, show very little transparency, communicating little about their energy consumption, or their use of green energy. They face little access to renewable energies due to monopoly utilities.
The GAFA are also under the spotlight; medium and small data centres remain off the radar.

Nonetheless the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) announced that despite the increase in workload for data centres (about 30% in 2020) the amount of electricity used would be up to 3%. Data centres are becoming more and more energy efficient.

 

The internet remains the most important source of information and has also made it possible to create less polluting solutions. Reading an email is more eco-friendly than printing a paper. Using an app to find a car parking space is more environmentally friendly than driving around in circles to find one. if you find yourself feeling concerned about this invisible pollution that we generate daily, rest easy in the knowledge that the Internet also contains tips to reduce its own electricity consumption.

 

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About the author

Jeanne Duhaze

Jeanne Duhaze