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Energy Efficiency

Published on June 1st, 2012 | by Gavin Hudson


How Much Energy Does the Internet Use?

June 1st, 2012 by  

Manipulating electricity, image by Storm Crypt

“No trees were killed in the sending of this message, but a large number of electrons were terribly inconvenienced.” It’s a funny email signature, but how many inconvenienced electrons does it take to power the internet?

In 2011, the digital universe, or the amount of information created and replicated, reached 1.8 trillion gigabytes, and this digital universe is doubling in size every two years. Much of that digital information is housed in data centers around the world, and running these data centers requires a huge amount of electrical energy.

A 10-megawatt (MW) data center can use the energy of a small town at a cost of around $300,000 a month. Couple that with the fact that there are over 500,000 data centers in the world, according to Emerson Network Power, and we’re talking about 2% of all electrical energy used globally. So, running the internet uses upwards of 406 terawatts per year, assuming 20.3 petawatt-hours as the world’s annual electrical energy consumption.

The odd thing is that in traditional data centers, only half of the energy consumed is useful for running the digital universe: powering the servers that hold our emails, social networking profiles, and the like. The other half of the energy goes into cooling those servers, or it’s lost as heat when electricity is changed between alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC).

Some data centers use natural underground reservoirs to cool their servers and improve their power usage effectiveness (PUE), or the relationship between energy used for the computing and energy used by the building.

This week, Green Data Center announced another potential solution to save energy: the world’s most powerful DC data center. Since transforming energy between AC and DC creates heat, Green has opted to run a portion of its servers purely on DC, reducing the transformation steps required from around five to just two.

With DC-capable servers from HP and DC technology from ABB, Green data center has a PUE of 1.4 and hopes to save 10-20% on energy costs. For a 10-MW fully DC data center, that’s equivalent to saving the energy generated by this wind turbine.

Protestors will likely never carry signs reading “Use paper! Save an electron!” but greening data centers with natural reservoirs, renewable energy, and DC technology saves energy. That’s a convenience to us all.

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About the Author

Gavin blogs from Zurich, Switzerland. His day job is Digital Media Communications Manager for ABB. Previously, he lived and worked in South Korea, blogging, editing and freelance writing for Green Options and PV Magazine.

Gavin’s favorite environmental work has included: co-founding the grassroots Nature Conservation Club at about age 8; interning for the Jane Goodall Insitute’s Roots & Shoots (R&S) program; representing R&S at the World Social Forum VI in Caracas, Venezuela; volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito; being a research assistant for a CAL lab studying climate change in Colorado; bicycling lots.

  • Most Important;y Internet is saving so much power, just imagine how much paper we needed if we didn’t have email…

  • REAF
  • Dave Harcourt

    Interesting and worrying!

    Should we not be thinking about what we are storing? I suspect there are piles of duplication ( multiple shared posts ), now irrelevant information ( eg up to 2000 posts a second on goals during the World Cup in South Africa in 2010), stored personal emails, useless “yeah” comments and aborted social communications

    We used to write this kind of stuff on paper, which was burnt, composted or piled up at little cost! Not stored at high cost for an undetermined time!

    • yeah, i know, i really wonder about all the useless crap stored for no reason.

      also wonder about the email boxes and Facebook pages of the deceased… which just keep on collecting info

    • Bob_Wallace

      Hard drives are dirt cheap.  Most likely 90% of what is stored goes quickly to ‘deep storage’ on drives that are rarely activated. But it’s there if we should want it for any future reason.  

      It’s probably a lot cheaper to store stuff than to separate the “should keep” from the “no reason to keep”.

    • Dave Harcourt

      Yes it’s true, that’s how I justify my own data management, but…

      I’m not sure how deep deep storage is, my own tweets (hardly followed by anyone) appear instantaneously and in full?

      We maybe need to think of the carbon footprint issue as well as the cost?

  • Anne

    “assuming 20.3 petawatts as the world’s annual electrical energy consumption”

    Please get the units right! 1 PW is a unit of power, it is the rate of production at a certain momnt in time.

    You mean 20.3 PWh, petawatthour, which is a unit of energy.

  • I think using more energy to run Internet now compared to using more paper is a short term trade off in order to reduce overall paper consumption use. Although ideas of a truly paperless society are likely impossible, I think it is possible that we will see a sharp reduction in paper consumption very soon. We have seen lots of progress in recent years, thanks to the Internet.

    As for energy use for the Internet, with the commercialization of renewable energy in the past 10-15 years, is making it more affordable, will enhance energy efficiency. That will be the boon needed to keep energy use clean for running the Internet.

    • Bob_Wallace

      That’s an interesting observation. Paper use is way down. Fewer newspaper, fewer magazines, fewer catalogs.

      And I would guess less office printing. (I certainly print far, far less than I used to.) As people get more comfortable with the safety of digital storing there’s go to be less hard copy backup happening.

      Pulp mills have been shut down. Fewer tons of paper hauled from place to place.

      Wonder what the energy savings has been?

  • jburt56

    No worries here long term. Lower power stuff is well on its way.

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