Energy Waste: How Our Constant Online Presence Increases Our Carbon Footprint

Internet companies portray themselves as the forward thinking problem solvers of today and tomorrow. However, it is disconcerting that these bright minds of our day are still ignoring the age-old problem of energy waste. For many, this comes as a surprise because these companies deal in the virtual realm – or so the system has led us to believe.

In reality, the internet comes from the physical world and our data is stored in servers. In order to instantly access information the servers must be running at all times even if not computing. On average, only 6 to 12% of this power is utilized to perform computations. Additionally, cooling systems and back up generators that keep these systems running at all times add to pollution even when unused. These data centers are taking in enough power for a medium sized town, yet waste 90% or more of the power that they pull off the grid.

The root of this problem is the culture we have created that revolves around the notion that failure is unacceptable and instantaneous information is a God-given right. Consumers are outraged if anything goes wrong and companies fire those at fault without a second thought. The language of the industry is also misleading. As consumers words like “virtual” and “cloud” lead us to believe that our actions have little effect on the physical world. However, information is stored in reality and technology, and despite exponential improvements we have not kept up.

This issue is particularly alarming considering the nature of the industry. This business is young and has seen a staggering growth rate of data centers. From 1998 to 2010, federal government almost quintupled its data centers, the numbers of which increased from 432 to 2,094. It is likely that large corporations such as Facebook and Google probably have an even higher rate. Right now, the ill effects of this system have yet to be felt because the industry is new, despite already using 2% of the country’s energy per year. However, the high growth rate of data centers with inefficiency of this scale will create large problems in the near future.

The good news is that data centers and people have the potential to be more efficient. Smarter software that efficiently queues jobs, technologies that automatically reduce power consumption of unused servers, and new methods such as virtualization offer technology options that can make data centers more efficient. Smarter server design geared to reduce the amount of energy, coolants, and pollutants needed is an approach pioneered by companies such as Google. However, this is also a cultural matter. Our attitude toward technology created this problem and improving people is as much a part of the solution as improving technology. Companies must realize that this system, while profitable, is not sustainable. A culture of fear among workers does not fit the image of these companies and is something they must strive to change. While these businesses are young, they should focus on creating a system today that reduces their impact on the environment and establishes a sustainable, yet profitable, way to store data for tomorrow. 

Consumers too can have an impact by demanding efficient methods and deleting unnecessary information. Deleting old emails, photos, and online files is just one way to reduce the amount of information stored. Often people, myself included, have multiple emails, in which useless information just piles up, without realizing the environmental impact. It may seem small but when added up the amount of storage is tremendous and deleting mail from these accounts can reduce the stress put on data centers. And believe me, it’s pretty fun to delete 3,469 emails. 

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Max Zimmerman

I am a student at Cornell University studying economics and Asian studies.

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