There’s No Free Lunch on Your Browser

The recently passed federal stimulus package contains $18 billion to stimulate the Internet. Technology fans are looking to that planetwide digital organism to help revive our economy.

But it’s an organism nourished by electricity, and lots of it. The Internet’s escalating power consumption stands as a warning that the engines of economic growth can’t run without depleting resources and cranking out wastes.

The servers and large data computing centers that run the Internet and other computer networks doubled their energy use between 2000 and 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Add in the power used by computers and peripheral equipment in homes and commerce, along with a projected 75 percent further growth in data centers by 2011, and the system’s electricity needs will exceed the total current consumption of 18 million average American households. The EPA says that by 2011 the peak load placed on the power grid by servers and data centers alone will require the output of 25 typical coal-fired power plants.

The national digital network doesn’t rank among America’s largest energy hogs, but it’s no cute little piglet either. Demand projected for 2011 would sop up Mexico’s entire current production of almost 200 million kilowatt hours, or by 2014, Australia’s. That it’s a small slice of the national electricity pie reflects more than anything just how big that pie is.

The harder and faster computers “think,” the more power they require. Each generation of technology, from the vacuum tube to today’s advanced processors, has handled more information per watt, but that efficiency has always been harnessed to push speed and output higher, not to save energy.

The industry produces tinier chips and bigger, hotter arrays of chips every year. A large share of the wattage going into a data center ends up as waste heat, so 40 percent or more of a center’s energy use typically is for air conditioning. Running and cooling a single 6-foot-high rack of servers occupying 7 square feet of floor space can consume as much power as 30 typical California homes. Thousands of these racks in rooms or buildings ranging into the hundreds of thousands of square feet can have city-sized power demands.

Internet exponents claim that this vast expenditure of energy is more than canceled out by the many resource-efficiency gains that computers make possible. But such gains, where they have occurred, appear to be getting blotted out by our general resource use.

For example, electronic communications were expected to cut paper use, but savings have been slow in coming. Paper consumption for all uses in the United States hit a peak of more than 700 pounds per person annually in the 1990s, a 25 percent increase over the 1970s, before e-mail. A 3 percent drop in paper use in the 2000s may mean that computerization is finally having an effect.

Online marketing was supposed to help limit the size of the brick-and-mortar retail world and keep shoppers out of their cars. But retail floor space per American grew 12 percent from 1995 to 2003. Mall space grew by 34 percent per capita. Now a recession rather than digital shopping has finally slowed that growth.

It’s widely anticipated that videoconferencing and telecommuting will substitute increasingly for business travel. But industry data show that, aside from a short post-9/11 slump, U.S. business travel marched upward at a steady rate of 5 percent per year from 1990 through early 2008.

Thanks to the economy’s plunge, business travel fell off sharply in the last half of 2008 and is sure to fall further. In light of that and similar downtrends, the time may have come to enlist the Internet in the cause of saving energy.

Hard times might present electronic communication and virtual travel with their best opportunities yet to substitute for the costly hauling of live human beings and bulky goods or the paving of more big-box parking lots.

But conservation won’t happen automatically. Today, a big share of the energy going into data centers — and the waste heat coming out — is aimed at persuading Internet users to consume more of everything, to convert more matter and energy into waste somewhere else. If the digital infrastructure is to help curb resource consumption rather than push it higher, all that power will have to be aimed in a different direction.

STAN COX is lead scientist for the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., and author of Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine. He wrote this comment for the institute’s Prairie Writers Circle. Write to him at t.stan@cox.net.

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Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond : Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought, where this piece first ran.

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