Environmental impact of the Internet
By John D. Turner
22 Sep 2014

We use a lot of technology today in our everyday lives; desktop computers, laptop computers, pads, game consoles, cell phones, smart phones, you name it. Many of us have grown up with such devices and cannot imagine a world without them. Many of us who grew up without them, and can imagine such a world, do not want to go back to living without them.

Most of us use these devices without any more than a hazy understanding of the technology that makes them work. You don’t really think about it, you just use them. And, when the Internet is slow or connectivity is bad, we tend to get a bit upset. For many of us fast bandwidth is expected, just like the air we breathe or the knowledge that when we flip a switch, the lights come on.

But there is quite a bit of technology behind these devices, and it all uses electricity – a lot of it! And whether or not we ever think in these terms, the technology we use every day has impact on the world in which we live, not just our lives but a physical and economic impact. Let’s look at some of the services we take for granted as an example.

How about Facebook? Facebook opened a new datacenter in Lulea, Sweden last year, 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It consists of three 300,000 square foot server buildings and consumes 120 megawatts (MW) of electricity generated by “clean, environmentally friendly” [1] hydropower. It has 14 backup diesel generators which can provide 40 MW of “dirty” emergency power. Total cost to build was around $760 million. Facebook of course, has other datacenters as well. In 2012, Tom’s Hardware reported that the company, based on its own reporting, consumed about 509 million kilowatt hours annually. This equates to between 180,900 and 217,080 total servers, depending on the power estimates per server. This was before the Lulea facility came online.

Google also has datacenters; 13 of them worldwide as of 2013. An article by James Pearn, estimated Google to have 1,791,040 servers as of January 2012, and projected that to increase to 2,376,640 by early 2013. This was based on an analysis of Google datacenters at that time, and datacenters under construction.

Google is adding an additional three datacenters this year to bring the total to 16. And they will undoubtedly build more.

And of course, there are other large scale server farms out there. In a 2013 article in ExtremeTech, Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer stated that there were, at that time, “somewhere over a million servers in our [Microsoft’s] datacenter infrastructure.” He went on to state that “Google is bigger, and Amazon a little bit smaller.”

Many of us utilize “cloud” storage for data, even executables. An example of the later would be Microsoft Office 360. New “cloud computing” companies are starting up all the time; many existing companies, like Intuit, Asus, and others, also offer cloud data storage for their applications. Backup services, like Carbonite, store your data “in the cloud,” and make heavy use of not just servers, but racks and racks of 15-drive RAID 6 storage arrays. Translation: lots of hard drives. How much storage are we talking about? A TechTarget article in 2009 spoke of two data centers in the Boston area capable of storing between 10-12 petabytes (PB) of data.

How much is a petabyte? A petabyte is 1015 bytes. That is 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. Multiply that by 12. That would be the amount that could be stored on 12,000 one terabyte hard drives. Except that it is even more than that, since a 1 TB drive actually formats out to about 900 MB of usable space, and 1 TB of RAID 6 SAN storage uses more than a single 1 TB drive; at least 5 maybe more. So in reality you are looking at around 66,000 1 TB drives. As I said, a lot of drives drawing a lot of power.

What is “the cloud” anyway? Servers. A lot of servers, housed in a lot of datacenters, using lots electricity; a huge giant infrastructure, like a genie at your beck and call, just waiting for the click of your mouse. Of course, all the convenience we enjoy comes at a cost; there is no such thing as a free lunch.

And of course, there is the World Wide Web, which turned 25 years old this past April. In September of this year, the estimated number of websites on the web crossed the 1 billion mark, according to figures updated in real-time by online tracker Internet Live Stats. Now some websites are hosted on individual user’s home computer system, but most are hosted on corporate servers or commercial servers somewhere; and the number of websites around the globe increases every minute.

A new Microsoft datacenter is being built a couple of miles from where I live, and two datacenters, already in operation, are just down the street from it. Two more large datacenters for different companies are being built a couple miles away in a different direction. Rackspace has a large facility in San Antonio and I am sure that there are others. Worldwide, there are a lot of datacenters housing a lot of servers, consuming a lot of electricity. Keep in mind that this is a technology that did not exist 20 years ago.

So how many servers are there anyway?

An article in 2009 estimated that Google at that time owned more than 2% of all servers in the world. Projecting this forward to 2013, and using Mr. Pearn’s numbers from above, and assuming that the percentage didn’t change, that would mean that in 2013, the number of servers worldwide, based on this estimate would be a staggering 118,832,000 servers! At 300 watts per server that would require 35.65 gigawatts of power just to run the servers; even at 250 watts per server it would come out to 29.71 gigawatts, and 250 watts per server is considered a low estimate of power usage. For a comparison, the maximum power output of Hoover Dam, the 56th largest power generating dam in the world, and 6th largest in the U.S., is 2.08 gigawatts.

That comes out to between 260-312 Terawatt-hours (TWh) per year to keep all those servers humming 24x7 so that you can enjoy your connectivity whenever you like. For comparison purposes, one Terawatt-hour is enough energy to power a city of 200,000 people for an entire year.

And the number of servers increases every year.

So what is the environmental impact of the IT technology and its support infrastructure? How is the electricity, which is the lifeblood of that technology, generated? My guess would be that the bulk of it is generated by coal or natural gas-fired plants worldwide. A good amount is probably nuclear, a small amount hydro and an infinitesimal amount by solar or wind, both of which are an inefficient means of keeping something running that requires baseline power 24x7.

Estimated world electricity generation grew by 2.5% in 2013 to approximately 23,127 TWh. So even taking the larger number of 312 TWh to run the world’s servers, that is only around 1.3% of total world electricity production to keep your desktop and mobile apps humming along. Of course, that number is increasing annually, and as I pointed out above, really didn’t even exist 20 years ago. That means the server infrastructure has gone from essentially zero to 312 TWh in the past 20 years. What will happen in the next 20? And that’s just servers – not everything else that goes into maintaining and powering our IT infrastructure.

So when you factor your iPhone, iPod, iPad, Internet, cloud storage and other IT usage into the equation, what is your “carbon footprint?” Are you willing to give all that up, or at least drastically cut it back, in order to “save the Earth?” Particularly when studies are showing that there has not been any warming occurring in the past 17 years, 11 months (215 continuous months) and counting, despite increases in carbon dioxide and “climate models” that claim the polar ice caps and alpine glaciers should have melted already?

Of course, they tell us, this could end “any day now;” perhaps by the end of the year. Then again, they told us that last year. And the year before that.

This year has been one of the coolest summers on record in the US. So what, they ask. There is a difference between “weather” and “climate,” they chide us. And yet, every time there is a hurricane, or a record breaking rainfall, or some other “weather” event, they are quick to point the finger and claim it was caused by “global warming.” It seems when it fits their pet paradigm, it’s “warming”, but when it is inconvenient it becomes “weather.”

Even if we have a cool summer here in the US, they say, it doesn’t matter; we are talking global temperatures, not US temperatures. It can be cool here and still be hotter everywhere else. OK. How about this one then? “Antarctic sea ice hit 35 year record high Saturday;” for the second straight year, Antarctic sea ice has grown to a record extent, baffling scientist. Oh, and that 35-year record? You might say well, ok, best in 35 years, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t greater before that. True. Although as it turns out, we have only been measuring the extent of Antarctic sea ice accurately for the past 35 years – since we put up satellites to make the observations. The article could have been titled “Antarctic sea ice hits highest extent ever recorded” and it would have been entirely accurate.

Of course, as this article points out, while Antarctic sea ice may be nearing a record, Arctic ice is still shrinking. Well, yes. It’s summer here in the northern hemisphere, after all. Let’s see what it looks like in January or February. And the article does mention that this year’s extent was “the sixth lowest since 1979” which is where they like to measure from. However it also mentions that there was “left-over” ice from 2013; in other words, all the ice from last winter hasn’t melted yet. Indeed, it took until June for all the ice on the Great Lakes from last winter to disappear.

But of course, that’s weather, not climate.

Meanwhile, the number of servers and the electricity requirements to power them continues to increase every week. It’s easy to condemn “gas guzzling, carbon spewing” SUVs and wax ecstatic about “clean electric” technology like a Chevy Volt - a car that you can drive for a whole 38 miles before you need to recharge the battery; after that it runs on gasoline just like any other car. But how many people are buying Volts each year as compared to SUVs of all types? When it comes to your IT connectivity, are you ready to lower your bandwidth consumption, turn off your cell phone, and disconnect from the Internet? Are you ready to fork over for “carbon taxes” on your technology use?

What is the IT equivalent of a Volt anyway? And how would you like to be forced to use that?

[1] Whereas hydropower may be “clean,” at least with respect to CO2 and other pollutants, whether or not it is “environmentally friendly” depends on who you talk to and your perspective on things. Hydroelectric dams kill fish. They prevent, or inhibit, certain kinds of fish from spawning. They destroy habitat for all sorts of life forms that used to live in the areas now covered with water. (Contra-wise they also create habitat for other sorts of life forms that didn’t live there before, but somehow that never seems to count for much.)

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