Logged On, Tuned In, and Energy Efficient: Just how green is the Internet?

""On Thursday, June 6, 2013, Google hosted “How green is the Internet?” The one-day, invitation-only summit brought together 100 experts from industry, academia, government, and NGOs to explore emerging questions around the environmental impacts and benefits of the Internet. The goal of the event was twofold: 1) expand the energy discussion of the Internet beyond just data centers, and 2) brainstorm transformative ideas for using Internet communications technology (ICT) to overhaul current business models in a way that creates transformative environmental and societal benefits.

This was the third event of its kind hosted by Google. In 2009, Google convened experts to discuss data center efficiency, similar to a 2003 RMI workshop that led to the publication of High-Performance Data Centers. In 2011, Google broadened the topic scope from data centers to the data center industry. The 2013 event continued that evolution and considered the ICT sector at a larger scale, looking at end-to-end energy and societal impacts of all aspects of the Internet, including:

  • end-user devices (only the energy associated with connecting web applications)
  • data centers where users’ data is stored and/or processed
  • core and metro networks that connect a user’s access network to data centers
  • broadband access technologies, including fixed broadband, mobile (base stations providing access to 3G and 4G networks), and local wireless (e.g. a wifi hotspot, a router in your home)

""Through my haze of star-struck ardor, I listened (from the 2nd row!) to keynote speaker and former Vice President of the United States Al Gore frame the importance of the problem: the ICT sector and its associated energy use are growing at an unprecedented rate. Within the next seven years, there will be 50 billion smart devices connected to the Internet. Researchers estimate this could account for around 10 percent of current U.S. electricity consumption. Really, no one knows; not even Google. But the number will be significant. With that staggering energy consumption in mind, Gore stressed the urgency of the climate crisis we are facing, referring to the recent news reports of climate-related weather disasters as “a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.”

But while this event acknowledged and focused on the energy use and environmental impact of the ICT sector, it gave equal credence to the societal and environmental benefits provided by the Internet. Morning presentations tackled a number of key topics, including Internet infrastructure; energy use implications of cloud-based email, docs, and software; comparing traditional retail and e-commerce, and CDs vs. digital music; and how much energy does it take to send a gigabyte of data?; among other relevant subjects.

Eric Schmidt, executive director of Google, kicked off the afternoon breakouts with an inspirational talk that really got to the heart of the matter—the growth in this sector is going to continue. And it’s adding immeasurable societal value in ways that we never could have dreamed of. The Internet has provided consumers with information to make more sustainable consumer purchases and enabled telecommuting and teleconferencing as alternatives to carbon-intensive travel. In some societies, the Internet provides people with their only access to medical treatment, politics, education, and socialization outside of their culture. “You think the Internet matters?” he asked. “It matters a lot.” He stressed that the solution shouldn’t be to use the Internet less, and certainly not to limit the global reach of these services. Instead, we must make the system components more efficient; power the sector with clean renewable energy; and leverage the Internet to help solve the climate crisis.

"EricIn addition to learning about topics that directly connect to RMI’s work, I was also excited to offload all of my million-dollar app ideas into the capable hands of people that can actually make them happen. Examples include a parking app that identifies shaded parking spots to keep cars cool, and an Industrial Ecology mapping program that charts waste streams across the U.S. to allow industries to identify suppliers or purchasers of various byproducts and waste.

Later, we divided into facilitated breakout sessions focused on e-commerce (banking retail), digitalcontent (newspapers, music, photos, video), communication and collaboration (email, social media, video conferencing), and Internet solutions (logistics, mapping) to brainstorm ways the Internet could be used to create transformative environmental benefits. Take the Streetline “Parker App,” for example. Consuming only 15 watts, this app allows you to find parking in an urban area, drastically reducing emissions from unneeded driving and idle time combing the streets for an available spot. The sessions generated a number of ideas, including:

  • using the Internet to scale crowdfunding for solar and other renewables
  • using mapping programs to optimize shipping and distribution across companies to minimize trucks traveling empty
  • an environmental “guilt meter” tied to social media that tracks consumers’ purchases
  • pairing a smart grid with geographically dispersed renewable resources to provide clean power where it is needed—a concept near and dear to RMI!

Top 5 Things I Learned

"EventOverall, this was one of the best professional events I have attended throughout my career. Hats off to Google for putting on a truly special event and bringing together a diverse and passionate group of individuals. (Those individuals even included three other RMI connections: RMI alum and director of sustainability at Yahoo! Chris Page, and RMI senior fellow and research fellow at Stanford University Jon Koomey, pictured with RMI alum and Google data center sustainability analyst John Stanley.) As I continue to think about what role RMI should be playing in this space, I reflect on the top five things I learned at this event (in order of importance/interest):

1. Energy use of wireless access networks dwarfs that of the device and the data center for mobile devices. By 2015, the wireless cloud will generate 30 megatons of CO2—90 percent of that comes from the mobile access networks!

2. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has recently developed CLEER, the Cloud Energy Emission Research model, to calculate the environmental benefits of moving applications to the cloud. This model is, in my opinion, a key tool for making a compelling business case to facility and IT managers to migrate to the cloud.

3. Cloud-based software could reduce current data center energy by as much as 85 percent. The technical potential of this savings is 23 billion kWh/yr, roughly equivalent to the annual electricity use for Los Angeles, CA. Refer to my recent presentation with Mark Monroe (DBL Associates) and Josh Whitney (WSP Group) on reducing data center energy use for more information.

4. For ultra-low-power devices such as smart phones, tablets, and low-power laptops, production (not operation) accounts for the majority of the lifetime emissions.

5. One of the most powerful benefits of the ICT sector is dematerialization—moving bits and bytes of data instead of pounds of people and products. The net environmental impact is drastically lower for downloading music or an e-book versus driving to a store and purchasing a physical good. In case you’re curious, downloading an e-book or audiobook, which accounts for more than 90 percent of its energy, consumes about 0.6 Wh of energy, the equivalent of powering a 100W light bulb for 20 seconds.

How would you like to see RMI get more involved in reducing this growing energy use? How do you think the Internet can be used to solve environmental problems?  

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Image 1 courtesy of Shutterstock.com. Al Gore image courtesy stocklight / Shutterstock.com. Eric Schmidt photo courtesy of Google.com. Event photo courtesy of Kendra Tupper.