How much energy do we use on the web?
By Ed Mitchell 20th April 2010
Are you aware of how much energy you use when you visit a website? Are you aware of how much energy is used when making a new computer? Any clues about what’s in the lovely new iPad (seen here entertaining a cat)? Do you reckon that it might have a precious mineral or two in it? Where do precious minerals come from then? And are they an infinite resource?
This is a post to explore this issue and ask you what you use/think/know – please use the comments to this post. We want to know. It has an introduction and some figures from our web host:
Do you wonder about this when you see the relentless adverts evangelising the benefits of being online on my mobile phone, or your friends show you their amazing new mobile phones which seem to have leapt directly out of a science fiction novel to dazzle and amaze us? How about all the magazines and other media wow-ing us with how popular we can be using these cool tools?
A couple of thoughts spring to mind:
- How much energy is this using and where is it coming from?
- What affect is this having on our ‘selves’, our identity?
This is a post about question number 1 (number 2 maybe after a glass of beer one night, anyone?).
We reckon that it is a bit of an ‘elephant in the room‘ at the moment – not just because Peak Oil is only just beginning to be taken seriously by the governments following years of ignoring/dismissing/denying/fabricating figures about the situation (see selection of bookmarked items), but also because it could be said that in our astounding lust for consumption and ever faster and more popularised use we are ignoring the question ourselves when making decisions about consuming technology and using the web.
We are aware of some irony around this post – we have a website, and are encouraging people to use it. We could not have built this website without using virtual collaboration tools (see one of our transition technologist meetings to the left here).
We are not demonising the internet and use of the worldwide web; it’s a wonderful amazing astounding invention which we love. So we’re using energy by hosting our site, and encouraging our users to share knowledge by using energy by using computers, on the internet, on our site. So a goal of the web project is to focus the site’s design and purpose on the best use of said energy, raise the questions therein, work with our host to understand this more, and see what other people think.
It’s a baffling jungle of numbers out there. Getting reliable stats on web usage is very difficult. Did you read that ‘doing two google searches is like boiling a kettle‘ article last year (which turned out to be inaccurate)? Or Google’s official post on this subject? The web must be seriously energy intensive and worth investing in the industry, otherwise google wouldn’t want to be energy traders or want to discuss pricing carbon. And build their own awesome server farms next to power stations. How much power does a server farm use? etc. etc. etc. (Just for the record, we know google isn’t the be all and end all, they just get lots of attention so you see a lot of links flying around).
As well as the issue of using energy to run things, it’s also question of embedded energy, and the lifecycle across all ICT (see Joss Win’s work admirable here), from the manufacture of a product past its energy use, to its length of use, to its disposal.
So we are confused and want to open the conversation. Have a look at any random web host comparision site – all the comparisons are on size, price and speed. It’s a bit like car advertising in the 1950s – all about bigger better faster, cooler trim, higher wings etc. There are green hosts: and if we’re talking eco-hosting and other green-friendly web hosting offers, where is the balance between energy sourcing, server speed and new-ness of computer? Is it better to use a host that uses brand new servers and renewable energy, or a host that champions re-use of older servers and not neccesarily renewable energy?
We questioned all this as part of the web project’s goals and asked Gaia Host, our worldly web host to do some number crunching for us which follows, pretty much entirely un-edited…
Web hosting figures
This information has been prepared by Charles Uchu Strader, a worker-owner at GAIA Host Collective.
Last Updated: April 9, 2010
All feedback is welcome as the impact of technology is wide-ranging, seen and unseen, and fast evolving. At it’s core the mined materials needed for technology have expanded over time and many are going through their own peak. This analysis works to expand the awareness of technology impact from one just of energy consumption during use, but of whole environment impact from mining to disposal & recycling.
This analysis also works to convert energy use to a “page view” metric (a single link to a web site application). The numbers we are using for our systems are cases where the amount of traffic at average peak periods is about half of what the servers can handle for optimum response. A site with less traffic on a similar server would result in an increase of energy usage per page view.
GAIA Host Energy Usage:
108,000 watt hours per month (our standard Tier 2 server) = 2,000,000 page views of a heavy web application (such as Drupal or WordPress) with thousands of pages of content and comments
- 1 page view = 0.054 watt hours = 0.000054 kilowatt hours
We double that to take into account ancillary datacenter networking, backup power, computer systems used for management, and the efficient cooling systems in our datacenters. Resulting in:
- 1 page view = ~0.000108 kilowatt hours
Quick Comparison to Published Google Energy Usage
- Google = 0.0003 kilowatt hours per search (reference from the google blog)
Well that’s not the whole energy usage picture! What about you, the reader?
Just using the “internet datacenter” power usage, does not take into account the whole energy use picture, the parts below are more significant and often totally ignored:
Individual Energy Use: Most of the total power used during when an individual is browsing the Internet is coming from the user’s computer…which could vary anywhere from another 0.0008 kilowatt hours to 0.008 kilowatt hours. (That energy use is from 2.5 to 74 times more energy use than the datacenter, depending on the type of device being used, how long you spend reading the page you requested from the Internet)
You need to think about the energy used to produce the computer too!
Embodied Energy Use: There is the embodied energy in the computer itself. Both on the datacenter side and on the user side. Studies of this vary widely from 1000 kWh to 2500 kWh for the production process of a typical computer (Studies done by Industry (lower numbers), EU, and UN).
This is where lifecycle becomes important:
Numbers below presume 8 hours per day use for user computer and the higher production energy number.
- Three Year Life Cycle = ~ 0.004 kWh per minute of use (given 8 hours per day of use)
- Six Year Life Cycle = ~ 0.002 kWh per minute of use (given 8 hours per day of use)
In both cases above you’ll notice that embodied energy of the computer can be considerably more than the combined live energy use by your individual computer and the internet server you accessed. In some cases live energy use of your computer can be higher than embodied energy, usually when the computer being used has very high energy consumption (like super-sized desktop tower with huge monitor).
For GAIA Host we strive for six year use lifecycles (The industry recommendation is 6 years to globally save energy based on improved IT efficiencies, while Industry heavily markets for use life cycles of 2-3 years.). We’ve actually been able to keep some hardware in play longer than that, up to 9 years as of 2010.
So the embodied energy use for our systems per page view would be another:
- ~ 0.00003 kWh per page view of embodied energy (given 24/7 operation)
So the real total per page view, using high numbers for users:
- 0.000108 kWh – datacenter energy use (average loaded server with web application)
- 0.008 kWh – user computer energy use (high end)
- 0.004 kWh – user embodied energy use (3 year use)
- 0.00003 kWh – server embodied energy use (6 year cycle)
Equating to a total of:
- 0.0120408 kWh per page view
Not done yet, that was just Energy Use, what about Environmental Degradation?
There are always the other impacts of the production process that degrade Earth’s environment, yet are not included anywhere in energy use information. Hundreds of metals, toxic chemicals, highly refined petroleum-based products. Devastation and toxic legacies from mining, drilling, fracturing, processing that will be around for many generations in the future.
Poor communities all around the Earth are affected by this in ways that look very similar to places ravaged by war. In fact many places that supply many of the source materials for computers are ravaged by war and deal with atrocious ongoing violations of the rights of humans and the right for the environment to be protected for future generations.
You just can’t put numbers to this. You can’t trade it like a carbon commodity on a stock exchange. The best thing you can do is extend the lifecycle of the computers already saturating the market, don’t buy high technology that you don’t need, and be wary of your disposal/recycling of the device. (certified recyclers).
Anything else you can do to focus on efficiency, do it!
A final environmental note for software developers and system administrators
One last huge way to huge way that Internet hosting providers and programmers/developers can help is through software efficiency. It is very often that slight changes to software configuration and/or program code can result in 50% or more efficiency improvements. Those type of software improvements benefit both the environment in the long term and the immediate experience of the site user too.