The Internet consumes energy. Most of us are not even aware of this. A search query here, streaming a few episodes of a series there and later talking on the phone with the family via Skype. The fact that energy is consumed in the process is quickly forgotten.
The Internet consumes a lot of energy.
The Internet operates through large servers that run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and require electricity. Each file must be routed through different servers, search queries must be managed, and files must be stored. This consumes energy and generates heat. To keep the giant server farms running optimally, server rooms are air-conditioned and kept at as constant and cool 22 to 24 degrees Celsius as possible.
A 2014 study calculated that the Internet accounted for 4.6 percent of global electricity consumption in 2012. That would put the Internet sixth in an international country comparison, behind China, the U.S., the EU, India, and Japan. The Internet and all its associated devices thus consume more electricity than Russia, for example, and almost as much as Canada and Germany combined.
It is difficult to determine how large the share of a single Google search query is in this. The value varies depending on the load on the servers and the difficulty of the search query. In addition, the outside temperature plays a role – the warmer it is outside, the more the servers have to be cooled. In 2009, the Sunday Times claimed that a Google search query requires about 0.003-kilowatt hours. Google quickly countered and claimed on its official blog that a Google search query would require a maximum of 0.0003-kilowatt hours. In other words, ten times less energy than the Sunday Times claimed in its article.
It is, therefore, impossible to say how much energy a Google search query consumes. But one thing is clear: Google and its services, such as Maps, YouTube, and Drive, consume energy. In total, around 5.7 terawatt-hours per year. That’s about as much electricity as San Francisco consumes per year.
Electricity consumption will continue to rise in the future.
That’s also because more and more devices are connected to the Internet. There are intelligent textiles such as pillows that vibrate when people snore at night, refrigerator cameras that record what food is in it and whether the best-before date has not yet expired, or a networked coffee cup that measures the temperature of drinks and keeps them warm if necessary. Since 2018, there has even been a shower with a voice assistant.
As a result of this so-called Internet of Things, experts such as Dr. Ralph Hintemann calculate that 70 terawatt hours of additional energy will be used each year in the EU.
However, video streaming services have consumed the most electricity in recent years. They generate immense data traffic. An international study has calculated that 0.06-kilowatt hours are consumed per gigabyte of data traffic. An hour of Netflix at full HD resolution consumes around three gigabytes of data – a 30-watt lamp can burn for approximately 360 minutes with this energy. In addition, of course, there is the consumption of the laptop, computer, or TV and, if necessary, the screen.
The Internet can supposedly save electricity, too.
Even though the Internet consumes an incredible amount of energy, it also theoretically saves energy. At least, that’s how Google often argues when it comes to the Internet giant’s energy needs. Every search query thus avoids a trip to the library or even a lengthy search in various stores for the best price.
For a long time, cloud services were also associated with high hopes. Technically demanding calculations were to be processed on servers, while the end users would only stream the results. For example, this approach is already used by the voice assistants Alexa and Siri. This saves the end users the large computing capacities, while large server farms can perform the calculations more effectively and faster. Experts, however, now estimate that cloud solution will not save energy because of the increased data traffic on the network.
Focus on ecologically generated electricity
Many companies are already working on optimizing their servers. After all, the high power consumption is also causing increased costs for IT companies. Saving electricity, therefore, also means saving money for them.
The larger the data centers and server farms, the more efficient they tend to be. While it makes no economic sense for smaller companies to optimize their data centers further because the labor costs would not outweigh the additional power consumption, large companies optimize their data centers to the maximum. Large companies even go so far as to try to use the waste heat from the data centers to heat buildings, swimming pools, or greenhouses.
Other providers are also trying to become more sustainable. According to its information, the tech giant Google now obtains 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Other search engines, such as Ecosia, donate up to 80 percent of their surplus revenue to ecological reforestation projects. In this way, end users can also actively support environmental protection. Otherwise, as always, the only thing that helps is conscious consumption.
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