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How much energy do we use on the web?

Are you aware of how much energy you use when you visit a website? Are you aware of how much energy is used when making a new computer? Any clues about what's in the lovely new iPad (seen here entertaining a cat)? Do you reckon that it might have a precious mineral or two in it? Where do precious minerals come from then? And are they an infinite resource?

This is a post to explore this issue and ask you what you use/think/know - please use the comments to this post. We want to know. It has an introduction and some figures from our web host:

  1. Introduction
  2. Take me straight to the web hosting figures

Introduction

celebrity twitter directory magazine nonsense

Do you wonder about this when you see the relentless adverts evangelising the benefits of being online on my mobile phone, or your friends show you their amazing new mobile phones which seem to have leapt directly out of a science fiction novel to dazzle and amaze us? How about all the magazines and other media wow-ing us with how popular we can be using these cool tools?

A couple of thoughts spring to mind:

 

 

  1. How much energy is this using and where is it coming from?
  2. What affect is this having on our 'selves', our identity? 

This is a post about question number 1 (number 2 maybe after a glass of beer one night, anyone?).

We reckon that it is a bit of an 'elephant in the room' at the moment - not just because Peak Oil is only just beginning to be taken seriously by the governments following years of ignoring/dismissing/denying/fabricating figures about the situation (see selection of bookmarked items), but also because it could be said that in our astounding lust for consumption and ever faster and more popularised use we are ignoring the question ourselves when making decisions about consuming technology and using the web.

transition technologist meeting photo

We are aware of some irony around this post - we have a website, and are encouraging people to use it. We could not have built this website without using virtual collaboration tools (see one of our transition technologist meetings to the left here).

We are not demonising the internet and use of the worldwide web; it's a wonderful amazing astounding invention which we love. So we're using energy by hosting our site, and encouraging our users to share knowledge by using energy by using computers, on the internet, on our site. So a goal of the web project is to focus the site's design and purpose on the best use of said energy, raise the questions therein, work with our host to understand this more, and see what other people think.

It's a baffling jungle of numbers out there. Getting reliable stats on web usage is very difficult. Did you read that 'doing two google searches is like boiling a kettle' article last year (which turned out to be inaccurate)? Or Google's official post on this subject? The web must be seriously energy intensive and worth investing in the industry, otherwise google wouldn't want to be energy traders or want to discuss pricing carbon. And build their own awesome server farms next to power stations. How much power does a server farm use? etc. etc. etc. (Just for the record, we know google isn't the be all and end all, they just get lots of attention so you see a lot of links flying around).

phone box and email sign


As well as the issue of using energy to run things, it's also question of embedded energy, and the lifecycle across all ICT (see Joss Win's work admirable here), from the manufacture of a product past its energy use, to its length of use, to its disposal.

 

So we are confused and want to open the conversation. Have a look at any random web host comparision site - all the comparisons are on size, price and speed. It's a bit like car advertising in the 1950s - all about bigger better faster, cooler trim, higher wings etc. There are green hosts: and if we're talking eco-hosting and other green-friendly web hosting offers, where is the balance between energy sourcing, server speed and new-ness of computer? Is it better to use a host that uses brand new servers and renewable energy, or a host that champions re-use of older servers and not neccesarily renewable energy?

We questioned all this as part of the web project's goals and asked Gaia Host, our worldly web host to do some number crunching for us which follows, pretty much entirely un-edited...

Web hosting figures

This information has been prepared by Charles Uchu Strader, a worker-owner at GAIA Host Collective.  

Last Updated: April 9, 2010

All feedback is welcome as the impact of technology is wide-ranging, seen and unseen, and fast evolving.  At it's core the mined materials needed for technology have expanded over time and many are going through their own peak.  This analysis works to expand the awareness of technology impact from one just of energy consumption during use, but of whole environment impact from mining to disposal & recycling.

This analysis also works to convert energy use to a "page view" metric (a single link to a web site application).  The numbers we are using for our systems are cases where the amount of traffic at average peak periods is about half of what the servers can handle for optimum response.  A site with less traffic on a similar server would result in an increase of energy usage per page view.

GAIA Host Energy Usage:

108,000 watt hours per month (our standard Tier 2 server) = 2,000,000 page views of a heavy web application (such as Drupal or WordPress) with thousands of pages of content and comments

  • 1 page view = 0.054 watt hours = 0.000054 kilowatt hours

We double that to take into account ancillary datacenter networking, backup power, computer systems used for management, and the efficient cooling systems in our datacenters. Resulting in:

  • 1 page view = ~0.000108 kilowatt hours

Quick Comparison to Published Google Energy Usage

Well that's not the whole energy usage picture!  What about you, the reader?

Just using the "internet datacenter" power usage, does not take into account the whole energy use picture, the parts below are more significant and often totally ignored:

Individual Energy Use: Most of the total power used during when an individual is browsing the Internet is coming from the user's computer...which could vary anywhere from another 0.0008 kilowatt hours to 0.008 kilowatt hours.  (That energy use is from 2.5 to 74 times more energy use than the datacenter, depending on the type of device being used, how long you spend reading the page you requested from the Internet)

You need to think about the energy used to produce the computer too!

Embodied Energy Use: There is the embodied energy in the computer itself. Both on the datacenter side and on the user side.  Studies of this vary widely from 1000 kWh to 2500 kWh for the production process of a typical computer (Studies done by Industry (lower numbers), EU, and UN).  

This is where lifecycle becomes important:

Numbers below presume 8 hours per day use for user computer and the higher production energy number.

  • Three Year Life Cycle = ~ 0.004 kWh per minute of use (given 8 hours per day of use)
  • Six Year Life Cycle = ~ 0.002 kWh per minute of use  (given 8 hours per day of use)

In both cases above you'll notice that embodied energy of the computer can be considerably more than the combined live energy use by your individual computer and the internet server you accessed. In some cases live energy use of your computer can be higher than embodied energy, usually when the computer being used has very high energy consumption (like super-sized desktop tower with huge monitor).

For GAIA Host we strive for six year use lifecycles (The industry recommendation is 6 years to globally save energy based on improved IT efficiencies, while Industry heavily markets for use life cycles of 2-3 years.). We've actually been able to keep some hardware in play longer than that, up to 9 years as of 2010.  

So the embodied energy use for our systems per page view would be another:

  • ~ 0.00003 kWh per page view of embodied energy (given 24/7 operation)

So the real total per page view, using high numbers for users:

  • 0.000108 kWh - datacenter energy use (average loaded server with web application)
  • 0.008 kWh - user computer energy use (high end)
  • 0.004 kWh - user embodied energy use (3 year use)
  • 0.00003 kWh - server embodied energy use (6 year cycle)

Equating to a total of: 

  • 0.0120408 kWh per page view

Not done yet, that was just Energy Use, what about Environmental Degradation?

There are always the other impacts of the production process that degrade Earth's environment, yet are not included anywhere in energy use information. Hundreds of metals, toxic chemicals, highly refined petroleum-based products. Devastation and toxic legacies from mining, drilling, fracturing, processing that will be around for many generations in the future.

Poor communities all around the Earth are affected by this in ways that look very similar to places ravaged by war. In fact many places that supply many of the source materials for computers are ravaged by war and deal with atrocious ongoing violations of the rights of humans and the right for the environment to be protected for future generations.

You just can't put numbers to this.  You can't trade it like a carbon commodity on a stock exchange.   The best thing you can do is extend the lifecycle of the computers already saturating the market, don't buy high technology that you don't need, and be wary of your disposal/recycling of the device. (certified recyclers).

Anything else you can do to focus on efficiency, do it!  

A final environmental note for software developers and system administrators

One last huge way to huge way that Internet hosting providers and  programmers/developers can help is through software efficiency. It is very often that slight changes to software configuration and/or program code can result in 50% or more efficiency improvements.   Those type of software improvements benefit both the environment in the long term and the immediate experience of the site user too.

 

Themes: 
Energy
About the author
User picture

Ed is the Web and Communications Manager for Transition Network.

He lives in Dorchester, likes digging and climbing, growing vegetables and reading, bicycles and books, swimming, camping and generally being outdoors.

Comments

Mike Grenville's picture

Greenpeace Cool IT

 Greenpeace publish regular reports on the impact of the world of IT on the climate and environment. Their latest is called 'Cloud computing and its contribution to climate change' . The report says that 'cloud computing devices like the Apple iPad, which offer users access to the “cloud” of online services like social networks and video streaming, can contribute to a much larger carbon footprint of the IT sector than previously estimated.'
http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/climate-change/cool-it-challenge

johntonta's picture

embedded costs and off-grid net (!?!)

Great post Ed and a very relevant issue for a blog post, that's for sure!

There are many challenges rolled into this one. And I think that it is such an important issue because as we develop different models and attempt new solutions the whole will be more resilient than the sum of the parts (by which I mean that sharing knowledge and lessons will avoid us duplicating mistakes or missing out on solutions found elsewhere). A great read on this is to be had in Jared Diamond's collapse, which looks at the critical role of information as different societies fade or keep going.

But there are some really interesting examples that I'd like to share that offer some useful lessons. Access Space in Sheffield is a media centre that only uses recycled computers http://www.access-space.org/?c=recycling There are many places that recycle computers, but Access Space adds to the model by being about community skills and the arts. The whole project leads to people sharing imagination and ideas... by being about empowerment. And furthermore they only use open source software. In case readers don't know about this, open source is free to use, can be put on any computer and is made and changed by the public and not controlled by large rich corporations who lock you into upgrades, expensive software and their own world of commercial product. Controlling our options is surely a key point for transitioners, whether we're considering local shops, seed stock or how we share information. This approach is further demonstrated by another - very entertaining - project coming from Access Space – the zero dollar laptop, take a look here for this one:

http://robvankranenburgs.wordpress.com/2007/10/11/james-wallbank-says-the-zero-dollar-laptop-manifesto/

 But aside from reducing the embedded cost of hardware and freeing up control of software, there remains the question of powering the damn things. I haven't come across so much on low energy computing (choose slow processors and low energy displays, but then what?). Is an off-grid Internet a contradiction in terms? Perhaps public hot spots might be considered. There are some partial examples from Brazil with their pontos de cultura, which use lo fi open technology to share community cultural activity http://www.cultura.gov.br/cultura_viva/?page_id=33 .  Community resources like libraries could fill some of the gap here, but the questions still mount up...

It would be great to hear of more approaches from anyone!

Ed Mitchell's picture

Bristol Wireless

I'm a big fan of Bristol Wireless - here in Bristol - great bunch

Anonymous's picture

Can somebody make this easier to understand and remember?

The California Climate Change exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences includes this easy-to-understand fact: Not eating beef on just Monday reduces your personal carbon footprint as much as buying a hybrid car.

So can somebody, somehow distill this info down to something similar? That's a lot to ask, I realize, but it would help a lot of us understand it and get more widely circulated.

Ed Mitchell's picture

making it simple

Hi new,

I guess that's my purpose in opening this conversation :)

Anonymous's picture

the big picture

The national average is 1.37 lb of CO2 produced for a kWh of electricity.   This means 83 page views will produce a pound of CO2.  Pretty small compared to a gallon of gasoline at 19 pounds of embedded CO2.

But let's look at net production at the "source" side.

Drudge, for example, claims 20,000,000 page hits daily.  That's 241,000 pounds, or 109 metric tons of CO2 to distribute his hot air daily.

Facebook claims 260 billion page views per month.  That's 104.4 million lbs CO2  per day - the equivalent of burning 5.5 million gallons of gasoline.  Just Facebook, every day.

Don't believe the hype that this digital world and our cyber-social network is somehow saving the planet.

BTW, you don't take into account all of the associated costs of the people in this industry, driving to work every day to produce the underlying tools and technologies. 

I am not suggesting we return to the stone age or become Luddites.  But there is an enormous environmental cost to what we do, even its browsing online...

amberu's picture

Energy

The truth is that the internet is non stop and it consumes tons of energy and produces co2, I mean a few million people are always online. Like a <a rel="follow" href="http://www.crestmediainc.com/">Los Angeles Web Design</a> team says, we have created a energy black hole.

Steve Atkins's picture

Green Hosting... the greener of two evils?

I've been investigating this green web hosting company www.greengeeks.com... they claim 300% wind energy, sounds great and here's what they say:

How is Green Geeks Green?

Green Geeks pulls energy from the grid just like every web hosting company. We must pull energy from the grid in order to make sure that we have a constant power flow for our servers and to make sure the servers would not be interrupted by a lack of power.

In order to compensate for the power we pull from the grid we purchase wind energy credits for the energy we consume from the grid. In fact we replace, with wind power, 3 times the amount of energy used by our servers so if we pull 1X of power from the grid we purchase enough wind energy credits to put back into the grid 3X of power having been produced by wind power.

Transition Town Dorchester has been hosted by Hostpapa for a couple of years now (100% green energy) and we've been very happy with our green hosters (independently happy, no sales pitch here!)... but must admit - that 300% from GreenGeeks sounds very inviting!

My conclusion is this:  

Try to navigate the Greenwash as best you can, but here's the really important bit...

THE GREENER OF TWO EVILS

GAIA Host Collective, Hostpapa, GreenGeeks and other green hosting companies are the right choice, even if it costs a little more, even if they are not operating perfectly green models (at least they are on the right path). Some of these may be greener than others.

The important thing is to choose one of them instead of getting frustrated with green energy statistics, bedazzled by offsetting schemes and end up buying into the equivalent of a fossil fuel hungry Jeremy Clarkson web host, eg like Fasthosts!