Your smartphone is essentially coal-powered, or maybe even gas-powered. So is your tablet, notebook computer, television, and even, if you have one, your electric car. Just as buying one of those devices in a friendly-faced suburban retail store doesn't change the fact that it was almost certainly built and shipped by people whose lives are so miserable that some companies place nets around their builds to keep suicidal souls from landing on sidewalk pedestrians, neither does ignoring the "true" impact of your data consumerism habit make the reality of its ramifications any less significant. Mr. Mark Mills, of the Digital Power Group, just released a landmark paper titled "The Cloud Begins with Coal - Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Coal: An Overview of the Electricity Used by the Global Digital Ecosystem" wherein he assesses the impact of our digital world on energy demands. Increasingly, and at a rapid rate, the share of electricity consumed by Internet-connected devices is dominating many traditional realms.
As this thumbnail chart indicates (click it for full report), the share of energy being consumed by the "Cloud" is approaching that of lighting, and electric vehicles (EVs) have a similar growth slope. Changing all your bulbs to those ugly, EMI-generating compact fluorescents (CFLs) isn't going to stop the trend. If you believe your smartphone, tablet, or laptop for watching videos is saving energy, you are right only when you discount the kilowatt-hours used by invisible entities. According to the paper, "Reduced to personal terms, although charging up a single tablet or smart phone requires a negligible amount of electricity, using either to watch an hour of video weekly consumes annually more electricity in the remote networks than two new refrigerators in a year." Out of sight, out of mind. Hard to believe? Read on.
Part of the reason megacorporations are so public with "Greenness" is because they are pressured by and held hostage by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), save-the-earth groups, and low-information consumers to "do their part" and be good stewards of our planet. Non-compliance leads to fines, orchestrated bad PR (public relations) campaigns, and even eco-terrorism by the unwashed (literally) hordes. Companies like Google have taken steps to build private energy generation facilities such as wind farms and solar collectors to help mitigate their dependency on coal for power, so they are fairly far down on the "Dependence on Coal for Data Centers" chart (click thumbnail for full report). However, look at the size bite out of the Apple that Steve Job's creation - the darling of every self-respecting ecowarrior - takes: Nearly 55%. HP, IBM, and Oracle run a close tie for second place at about 50%. Refer back to the Annual Global Electricity Generate chart to see how their uses of gas and nuclear sources also factor in. Don't get me wrong, Google might be evil*, but at least they're not as big in the hypocrisy area.
Another chart in the report shows that current trends indicate Internet data transfer by PCs (personal computers) will only account for half the traffic by 2017** - that's only 4 short years away. Equipment used in data centers often are monstrously large banks of networked surplus computers that were too good to be sent to third-world countries for barefooted children to melt down PCBs to recover lead, gold, silver, and other sellable metals, but not good enough for the average first-world consumer to be satisfied with for playing games and watching movies. Hence, the energy efficiency of data centers is pretty atrocious overall. Outfitting with all new, more efficient motherboards, hard drives, routers, and power supplies would make the Internet too expensive to give away for free, and if the Internet wasn't free, the market for devices that exploit its power and convenience would tank.
Interestingly, whereas you might think that this study was funded by green efforts like wind power and solar power companies, it was actually backed by the National Mining Association and by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. At a time when our government is doing everything in its (often unconstitutional) power to kill off the coal power industry, the world's voracious hunger for energy is increasing tremendously. At what point does a "crisis" ensue where a tax or some other punitive measure will be imposed on users with the ability to pay (i.e., you and me)? The usual cadre of freeloaders (aka bloc voters) will of course continue to receive their supply of data and devices on a gratis basis. Watch for it coming soon to a state near you.
If all you do is peruse the plethora of well-designed charts, it is definitely worth taking a little time to review Mr. Mills' work. Tell him I sent you.
* At one time Google's company slogan was, "Don't be evil."
** Machines, tablets, smartphones, and TVs make up the rest.
Posted August 16 2013