SAN FRANCISCO, 10 OCTOBER 2011
Dear EarthTalk: What is the environmental impact of so many people now
using sites like Facebook and spending so much time online?
Bob Yearling, Paris, Texas, U.S.A.
The environmental impact of so much online time really boils down to
energy usage, which in turn affects the amount of greenhouse gases we pump
into our atmosphere. For one, each of us can help by limiting computer
time (whether surfing the net or not) and shutting them down or putting
them into sleep mode when we arent using them (this can be automated via
the computers power management control panel).
Also, when shopping for a new computer, consumers and businesses alike
can opt for models certified by the federal government as energy efficient
with the Energy Star label. If all computers sold in the U.S. met Energy
Star requirements, Americans could pocket $1.8 billion annually in saved
energy costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent
to taking some two million cars off the road.
Individual responsibility aside, the creation and management of more
efficient data centers by the major online hubs especially as we enter
the age of "cloud" computing whereby most of the software, content and
services we look to our computers for resides online and is served to us
as-needed is what can have the biggest impact. Google, Facebook, and
Amazon.com are already deeply committed to the cloud computing model, with
Microsoft, Yahoo and others following suit accordingly.
For its part, Google has been a real leader in the building of green
data centers, even powering them with renewable energy. The company
recently released environmental footprint scores for several of its data
centers. While the energy usage required to run its cloud services (Google
Search, Google+, Gmail and YouTube) seems huge in the aggregate it used
260 megawatt hours to power its data centers in 2010 it boils down to
only 7.4 kilowatt hours worth of energy annually per user. Google reports
that to provide an individual user with its services for a month uses less
energy than leaving a light bulb on for three hours. And because the
company has been carbon neutral since 2007, "even that small amount of
energy is offset completely, so the carbon footprint of your life on
Google is zero."
In an April 2011 report entitled "How Dirty is your Data?" the
non-profit Greenpeace examined energy sources for the 10 largest IT
companies involved in cloud computing, finding Apple, Facebook and IBM
especially guilty of getting significant amounts of power from coal-fired
power plants. (Facebook had come under fire earlier this year when
reporters uncovered that the company planned to buy electricity for its
brand new eco-friendly data center in Prineville, Oregon one of the
greenest such facilities ever designed and constructed from a utility
that derives most of its power from coal.) Yahoo, Amazon.com and Microsoft
scored best in use of renewable alternative energy sources for cloud
In the long run, analysts think that the widespread shift to cloud
computing will be a great boon to the environment. A report released in
September 2011 by Pike Research, "Cloud Computing Energy Efficiency,"
predicts that because of the shift to cloud computing and increasing
efficiencies, data center power consumption will decrease by 31 percent
between 2010 and 2020.
CONTACTS: Energy Star, www.energystar.gov; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org; Pike Research, www.pikeresearch.com.
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